BANGOR, Maine — Unionized nurses at Eastern Maine Medical Center and hospital trustees each ratified a new labor contract in separate votes Tuesday and Wednesday, bringing more than eight months of often contentious negotiations to an end, at least for now.
The ratification votes made official a tentative agreement reached at the end of a marathon last-ditch round of contract talks last week that averted what would have been the second nurses strike in six months. The strike that was averted had been scheduled for Thursday.
Among the issues resolved were the transfers of nurses among departments, the workload for charge nurses and health benefits. Not addressed were staffing ratios, which nurses said was a major sticking point.
In a statement issued Wednesday morning, The Maine State Nurses Association/National Nurses United said Tuesday night’s vote was one of its closest ever. Though not included in the statement, the breakdown was 51 percent in favor, 49 percent opposed, according to a Tweet sent to the union’s followers.
The hospital board of trustees’ vote early Wednesday afternoon was unanimous, according to Greg Howat, vice president of human resources and chief negotiator, and Lorraine Rodgerson, chief nursing officer and vice president for patient care services.
The new one-year agreement took effect Wednesday.
“The nurses at EMMC have spoken. This has been a long road, but we feel that we had to speak up for our patients and ensure that we are able to provide the community with the best care possible,” Judy Brown, head of the nurses union at EMMC and a registered nurse, said after the union vote.
“Without the support of the community, I don’t believe we would have gotten this far,” she said. “We will continue to pursue these staffing improvements again next year.”
Howat said the contract was the result of compromise.
“In the end, the union worked with EMMC to come up with creative ways to address their issues in the context of the current realities facing Eastern Maine Medical Center. It was a challenge, but it was achievable. This we always knew.”
According to Howat, the contract addresses some of the specific concerns expressed by the union while preserving EMMC’s ability to respond to challenges with flexibility.
Issues the hospital and nurses were able to come to terms on include:
• The transfer of nurses to different departments or units.
“That’s been a very important issue to them,” he said. The contract signed this week calls for a three-week notice before transferring any nurse on a permanent basis, he said. “Apparently, that satisfied the nurses and the union.” he said.
• The hospital agreed to work toward freeing charge nurses from patient assignments, allowing them to assist floor nurses as needed.
• The nurses also agreed to give up the health insurance plan they have had for 37 years, effective July 1, Howat said. After that, they will become insured through less expensive plans that EMMC provides for other employees. They also will contribute toward the cost of their premiums.
“We’re pleased that we could find an area of compromise with the union on these issues and we’re glad to have an agreement,” he said.
Not addressed in the contract were staffing ratios, which the nurses characterized as a patient safety issue. EMMC’s management strongly disagreed.
Rodgerson said that while the new contract does not include language addressing staffing ratios, it does provide for a process through which any nurse concerned about his or her ability to carry out their their work assignments can bring those concerns to the hospital’s professional practice committee for review and a recommendation.
That, she said, has been a practice for some time. It now has been formalized.
“We’re pleased that this difficult situation has been resolved,” Howat said Wednesday during a news conference at the hospital. He added, however, “This really is not a time to celebrate. It’s a good outcome, it’s good for the community, it’s good for EMMC and it’s good for the nurses but this has been very trying for the entire community.”
With a new one-year contract in place, Howat said, the hospital’s management and its estimated 830 unionized nurses can put the issues that divided them aside for the time being.
He noted, however, “We’ll be back at the table for the next contract, probably in 10 months. So there’s a lot of work that we need to do internally to identify how we can keep it from happening again. It’s [been] very difficult for the entire community and certainly for us who work at EMMC.”
With regard to the 49 percent of voting nurses who opposed the contract, Rodgerson said, “I think those who didn’t vote to ratify it still have some concerns.” She said she expected remaining issues to be brought up in the next round of contract talks.