EMMC nursing contract still elusive, talks to continue May 16

Posted May 10, 2012, at 11:28 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Despite a 12-hour negotiating session Thursday, Eastern Maine Medical Center and the union representing roughly 850 registered nurses who work there were unable to close a contract deal.

Negotiators for the hospital and the Maine State Nurses Association/National Nurses United got together shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday. Working with a federal mediator, the two teams stayed at the bargaining table until nearly 10 p.m., spokeswomen for the two groups said.

In separate interviews earlier this week, however, representatives from both sides of the bargaining table expressed similar goals. Both sides said they want to see a new contract in place — preferably a three-year agreement — and both said they believe that goal can be achieved.

The next session with the mediator is set for next Wednesday.

But without a mutually acceptable contract offer in place at the end of Thursday’s marathon bargaining session, union nurses are gearing up for an informational picket next Tuesday near the hospital’s main campus

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.

Contract provisions remain in place, however.

In the current round of negotiations, hospital officials have noted that dozens of new positions have been added at EMMC. Nurses say more are needed.

Details about the informational picket were not available late Thursday night.

A notice that the union presented the hospital last week said that picketing will take place at three of the hospital’s locations — EMMC’s main campus on State Street, the EMMC Healthcare Mall on Union Street, both in Bangor; and at CancerCare of Maine off Wilson Street in Brewer.

A post on the nurses unions’ website referred only to gathering on State Street in front of the main campus at a time to be announced later.

Although participants hold signs and banners and the like, an informational picket is not a strike. Rather, it is meant to allow unions in negotiation to provide information to the public.

Some of those in attendance likely will be supporters who are not employees of the hospital and in some cases not nurses.

The nurses holding signs are off duty, EMMC spokeswoman Jill McDonald noted in an update Thursday night.

“Nurses who are scheduled to work will be at patients’ bedsides provided the excellent care they usually do,” she said.

In the meantime, EMMC took steps Thursday night to reassure patients, their families and the community that care will continue uninterrupted as union nurses and representatives hold an informational picket on Tuesday.

Sticking points in this round of talks include staffing levels, security in the emergency department and pay.

The nurses, who did not receive a cost of living increase in the contract that expired at midnight last 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.”

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