BANGOR, Maine — Union nurses at Eastern Maine Medical Center and their supporters took to the streets Tuesday in an informational picket aimed at raising awareness about issues they say are barriers to a contract agreement.
Roughly 60 people were on hand carrying signs as the four-hour picket got under way about 4 p.m. on the Hancock Street side of the hospital. Numerous motorists honked in solidarity while driving by the picket line.
Members of the Maine State Nurses Association/National Nurses United, most of them wearing red T-shirts and windbreakers, were joined by supporters from an area paper mill, the postal service, Maine AFL-CIO and the Eastern Maine Labor Council and its sister organization, Food AND Medicine, among others.
Other off-duty nurses and supporters were expected to join in as they became available, organizers said.
Union nurses notified the hospital of their plan to conduct an informational picket after their one-year contract with EMMC expired earlier this month.
Contract talks, which have been guided by a federal mediator, are scheduled to resume at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
“Right now it comes down to safety and security in our emergency department and staffing concerns,” Jennifer Sedgwick, a member of the nurses’ negotiating team, said as picketing began. “We’re asking for resource nurses” on all of the floors who would be available to cover for nurses who are busy with a patient, call in sick, are on break or otherwise tied up.
“We’re actually really hopeful that we’ll have some kind of agreement,” Sedgwick said. “The nurses really would like to have a three-year [contract], kind of put this behind us and make sure our patients are safe. That’s really our goal.”
In a statement issued late Tuesday afternoon, EMMC officials said they agree that many of the issues raised by the nurses union “are important considerations for running the medical center and that aside from economic proposals, most are already being addressed outside the contract arena.”
They said that the hospital has beefed up staffing where volume dictates it is needed and that resource nurses are in place in five units and hospitalwide. Rapid response teams have been established and other additions are being considered, hospital officials said.
From management’s viewpoint, the key sticking points are economic and include “the size of the wage increases we are willing to pay, and increase in call pay and a paid time to rest after call.”
“It is the hospital’s responsibility to stay competitive with other organizations in terms of pay, balancing that with our obligation to remain affordable to our patients,” they said.
The nurses, who did not receive a cost of living increase in the contract that expired earlier this month, 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.
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 if only a one-year pact is achieved.
Jim Ireland, an emergency department nurse participating in the picket, read a statement from Dr. Scott Thomas, an emergency room physician:
“For 18 years I have observed and experienced innumerable verbal and physical assaults on the emergency department staff,” Thomas said. “Despite the volatile and at times violent environment, the staff continues to advocate for safety, as well as to provide compassionate care for the community we serve.”
EMMC officials said emergency department safety and security remain in their focus.
“We have layers of security measures in place including security cameras, security alert buttons, and a computerized door locking system, among many others. All security officers, and many ED staff, have formal training in Management of Aggressive Behavior, with more scheduled going forward,” their statement pointed out.
Also being considered are enhanced metal detection systems, including a walk-through metal detector.