BANGOR, Maine — The one-year contract between Eastern Maine Medical Center and its roughly 850 unionized nurses expired at midnight Thursday and nurses now are gearing up for “informational picketing” at three locations later this month.
Contract provisions remain in place, however, and talks with a federal mediator are expected to resume in a week or so, a hospital official said.
The one-year contract that expired was ratified last May after eight months of often contentious negotiations. In addition to marathon contract talks, there was picketing, a strike, a lockout and threats of a second strike and lockout.
Among the issues resolved in that agreement were the transfers of nurses among departments, the workload for charge nurses and health benefits. Not addressed were staffing ratios, which nurses said at the time was a major sticking point.
Though the one-year pact provided a period of stability, tensions between hospital officials and unionized nurses have flared up again during this round of talks, which began eight weeks ago.
During a bargaining session Thursday — the 13th since this round of contract talks began — EMMC presented the union with its “last, best, final offer,” Greg Howat, the hospital’s chief negotiator and vice president of human resources, said Friday afternoon.
The union left Thursday’s session without responding to the offer and there hasn’t been any communication between the two groups since — with the exception of a formal notice that the union plans to conduct 24-hour-long informational pickets.
The pickets are scheduled to begin at midnight Tuesday, May 14, and run to midnight the next day at EMMC and the Union Street Healthcare Mall, both in Bangor, and the Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer, Howat said, citing the notice.
Vanessa Sylvester, a spokeswoman for the Maine State Nurses Association, declined to comment beyond what was said in the statement. She said more information will be made available during a news conference set for 3 p.m. Monday at the Bangor Motor Inn. She said there is no talk of a strike at this point.
At issue again is staffing levels, officials from the Maine State Nurses Association/National Nurses United said in a statement issued Friday afternoon.
In the statement, the nurses maintain that improved staffing and patient safety “needs to be part of this contract settlement.”
“When a nurse has 16 hours of work to complete in a 12-hour span of time, they do not have the luxury to pick up tomorrow what gets left off today,” Jess Mellott, a registered nurse at EMMC and a member of the union’s negotiating team, said.
“This is the struggle our nurses face on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “As patients come to us sicker, with more needs, and as responsibilities increase, staffing levels remain inadequate and uncertain. We are all hopeful that management will want to set another bargaining date and address these issues.”
In a statement of its own, EMMC said that in an effort to negotiate a new contract, the hospital’s management “proposed very few changes to the current contract in order to minimize barriers to a speedy agreement.”
The statement noted that EMMC’s focus remains on patient care.
“We are disappointed that we were unable to reach an agreement before the contract expired,” EMMC President and CEO Deborah Carey Johnson, a registered nurse, said. “However, while we wait for word from the union, all employees will remain focused on providing care to the communities we serve.”
Among the sticking points for the hospital is the union’s “rather significant demand for wage increases,” Howat said.
Howat said the nurses will receive a 3 percent pay increase if and when they ratify the contract they were offered Thursday.
“They’re demanding 5 percent,” he said, adding that the union also is seeking improved benefits, incentive pay for being called in to work when not scheduled and an additional step increase for nurses who have been employed for 28 years or more.
With regard to staffing levels, he said EMMC over the past year added 32 positions, most of them in the emergency, critical care and telemetry departments, and has approval for 22 “overhire” positions, or staffers above the typical authorized number who can step in when a department experiences turnover, is faced with patients requiring acute care and similar situations.
“We have very good staffing numbers here. Our patients receive quality care every day,” he said.
Another major issue the nurses cited Friday is security in the emergency department.
“In the past year, there have been attacks on nurses and medical center staff. At the request of [the union], EMMC did make the emergency department a locked unit, however there are more security measures that need to be carried out for the safety of staff, patients and their families,” they said.
Howat said that the hospital has gone to great lengths to beef up security in the emergency department. Measures include around-the-clock security, the addition of a Bangor police officer from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily, 21 security cameras and metal detecting wands to ensure patients and visitors don’t bring weapons or other dangerous items into the hospital.
The hospital, he added, also is looking into purchasing a metal detector.