BANGOR, Maine — Less than four days after their one-year contract expired, representatives of Eastern Maine Medical Center and its nurses union are gearing up for a return to the bargaining table.
The nurses had planned to conduct a news conference Monday afternoon prior to a planned membership meeting at the Bangor Motor Inn. Instead, they made a member of their negotiating team available for questions and comments.
In separate interviews Monday, representatives from both sides of the bargaining table expressed similar goals.
Negotiators from the hospital and the union, which represents roughly 850 nurses, both said they want to see a new contract in place — preferably a three-year agreement — and both believe that goal can be achieved. Both sides acknowledge that while strides have been made, more work needs to be done to ensure that EMMC maintains a safe atmosphere for patients and employees alike.
One key area in which the two sides are not seeing eye to eye is pay.
The nurses, who did not receive a cost of living increase in the contract that expired at midnight Thursday, are seeking 3 percent increases for each of the three years of their next contract — or a 5 percent increase if only a one-year agreement is reached, Jennifer Sedgwick, a member of the nurses union’s negotiating team, said Monday.
The union also is seeking benefit improvements, including an additional pay step and more pay for nurses who are called in to work outside of their regular hours.
In a contract update posted on its website Monday, EMMC said its “last, best, final offer” called for 3 percent the first year and 2 percent for each of the subsequent two years and a 3 percent increase in the event that only a one-year pact is achieved.
In the update, the hospital said that given uncertainties in what it can expect in reimbursements from federal and state government programs, “we feel our offers are as much as we should offer.”
In an interview Monday evening, EMMC spokeswoman Jill McDonald and Debbie Richards, interim chief nursing officer and a member of the hospital negotiations team, noted that roughly 60 percent of EMMC’s patient volume is covered by government payers, namely Medicare and MaineCare.
“These programs don’t pay us what it costs to provide the care so on those patients, we lose money,” McDonald said. “That’s why we have been focused so hard on cost containment and, frankly, cost reduction, over the past two years.
“We’ve been quite successful in some areas. We’ve brought costs down by looking at our processes, working together with employees in those areas to identify better ways to do it,” she said. She added, however, that more needs to be done in that area.
The nurses also want the hospital to install a metal detector to screen people coming into the hospital’s Emergency Department and they want the hospital to hire more “resource nurses,” who would fill in for nurses who are dealing with acute patients, are out on vacation or family medical leave or otherwise are tied up, Sedgwick said.
Those are two areas that hospital officials say need to be addressed outside of a contract.
“While these things are worthy discussions to have, the position of the negotiating team is that none of them belong in a contract,” McDonald said. “It’s not the place for them to be.”
“Staffing remains a management function,” Richards said, adding that such decisions are based on patient loads. “About two years ago, we had a dip in our volume, but over the last year we’ve seen an increase in our volume and we’ve responded by adding 32 additional nursing positions,” she said, adding that those new positions primarily were added in the emergency, critical care and telemetry departments.
She also said the hospital 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.
McDonald and Richards on Monday outlined a number of safety measures that EMMC has put into place, including beefed up security staffing, cameras and a metal detecting wand and door locks, among other things.
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.
With regard to the metal detector, the two said that is under consideration.
McDonald, however, said that a metal detector would not be useful in most instances involving aggressive patients or visitors. While weapons and other dangerous items do occasionally make their way into the hospital, most cases involve the use of “hands, feet and teeth.”
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.
The next round of contract talks between the Bangor hospital and members of Unit 1 of the Maine State Nurses Association/National Nurses United is set for Thursday morning.
Correction: An early version of this story requires correction. EMMC's "last, best, final offer" for nurse contracts calls for a 3 percent pay increase in the event that only a one-year pact is achieved, not a 5 percent.