BANGOR, Maine — Unionized nurses employed at Eastern Maine Medical Center ratified a three-year contract on Tuesday that hospital administrators had called their “last, best, final” offer.
The contract gives the nurses at least a 7 percent raise over the life of the contract.
“It provides for a 3 percent pay increase immediately for the nurses, and a 2 percent increase next year,” followed by another 2 percent raise for year three, Greg Howat, the hospital’s chief negotiator and vice president of human resources, said Wednesday. “Within a two-year period they will be receiving more than a 7 percent pay increase when you compound” the three increases.
A press release from the nurses union said the contract includes “wage increases between 7-13 percent and health benefit security language that will keep experienced nurses at the bedside.”
Nurses on a higher pay step, which are established based on experience, will get more of a raise, Vanessa Sylvester, spokeswoman for the Maine State Nurses Association, explained.
About 850 registered nurses employed at EMMC and represented by the Maine State Nurses Association, National Nurses Organizing Committee, and National Nurses United had the opportunity to vote on the contract Tuesday.
“The majority has voted to ratify the contract,” Judy Brown, president of the nurses union at EMMC, said by email early Wednesday morning. “The team really appreciated the nurses coming out to vote in large numbers.”
EMMC nurse Debbie Richards said she and other nurses are happy with results of the vote.
“We’re very pleased,” she said.
The next step is for the final contract offer to be presented to EMMC’s board of trustees for approval, which is expected to happen in the next day or two, Howat said.
“We’re confident they will approve it,” he said.
“This agreement is a result of compromise from both sides,” Howat said in a statement. “We’re pleased to reach an agreement that is in the best interest of our patients, employees, and the communities we serve.”
Joanne Mitchell of Orrington, a 15-year veteran nurse at EMMC, was one of the last nurses to cast her ballot. She said she braved Tuesday night’s lightning storm for only one reason.
Staffing issues are her main concern, Mitchell said. “Eastern Maine is not willing to really budge on our staffing and it’s a big problem.
“It’s not about money,” she added. “It’s about staffing and it’s all we care about. It’s all we cared about the last time.”
The voting took place at the gazebo at the Bangor Motor Inn and Conference Center on Hogan Road.
“We’ve had a good turnout,” Jen Sedgwick, chief steward for the Maine State Nurses Association’s Unit 1, the bargaining unit for the region’s largest hospital, said just before voting ended at 8:30 p.m. She declined to say how many nurses voted.
The new contract also has language that requires the hospital to install a metal detector in the emergency room, according to Cokie Giles, a nurse and member of National Nurses United.
“Security in the emergency department was one of our key issues in bargaining,” she said. “Having a metal detector installed is one very important step that EMMC needed to take to ensure the highest level of safety and security.”
Union members ratified a one-year contract last May after eight months of often contentious negotiations that included a strike, picketing, a lockout and threats of a second strike and lockout. That contract expired earlier this month, which is when nurses and their supporters conducted an informational picket near EMMC.
While nursing transfers among departments, charge nurse workloads and health benefits were addressed in the agreement, staffing levels remained a major sticking point.
“According to a survey of our membership, one of the top issues that needed to be addressed was continued problems with staffing,” Brown recently posted on the unit’s Facebook page. “Management was adamant that adding strict patient/nurse staffing ratios was a deal breaker. We decided to be creative and we floated the idea of scheduling a resource nurse daily on the inpatient units.”
Resource nurses already are in place in many units and the hospital has created rapid response teams to beef up staffing where needed, hospitals officials said. The hospital also added security cameras and alert buttons, a computerized door-locking system and additional security.
Staffing levels do not belong in contracts, EMMC officials say, and would hurt the hospital’s ability to adapt to fluctuating patient volumes and finances.
Hospital officials did heard the nurses’ concerns, Howat said. “We’ve responded [with additional wording in the contract to] strengthen the ways nurses have input,” he said.
“With a three-year contract in hand, we look forward to focusing our collective attention on innovations and improvements that continue to ensure our patients and their families receive the highest quality, compassionate care they’ve come to know and expect from EMMC,” Howat said.
BDN reporter Dawn Gagnon contributed to this story.