BANGOR, Maine — Unionized nurses and their supporters rallied on Monday in front of Eastern Maine Medical Center’s State Street campus to raise public awareness of contract negotiations that are scheduled to wrap up this week.
The nurses, represented by the Maine State Nurses Association and the National Nurses Organizing Committee, are nearing the end of their three-year contract with the 400-bed hospital. Among other measures, they are calling for the hospital to beef up staffing levels they say leave nurses chronically exhausted and patients at heightened risk for medication errors and other injuries.
The hospital argues that staffing reflects patients’ needs on a day-to-day basis and should not be subject to mandated minimum standards.
“Some nurses tell me they go home exhausted and in tears, afraid they’ve forgotten something.” said union representative Jen Kadel, a labor and delivery nurse at EMMC and a member of the bargaining team. “No registered nurse wants to risk the safety of their patients.”
Union president Judy Brown said recent staffing cuts at the hospital have been so severe that many nurses routinely work extra hours and extra shifts because there is no backup plan when their colleagues call in sick.
“They’re doing it for their patients, to make sure there’s a nurse there,” Brown said. But tired, overworked nurses are more likely to make errors, she noted.
In addition to their demands for improved staffing, the nurses are protesting changes in their health care benefits and looking to relieve unit charge nurses of carrying a routine patient load, freeing them to provide shift leadership tasks and an extra set of hands as needed, Brown said.
They also point to recent and impending bricks-and-mortar projects at the State Street campus as diverting hospital resources away from direct patient care. Those concerns were supported at Monday’s rally by Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, who said the recently completed “giant parking garage” that served as the backdrop to the gathering represented misplaced administrative priorities, along with the “ridiculously high salaries” of top executives. In 2008, EMMC president and CEO Deborah Cary Johnson received a total compensation package of $713,361, according to tax forms posted on the hospital’s website.
Sen. Joe Perry, D-Bangor, also was on hand to support the nurses. Large employers such as EMMC wield a lot of political clout in Augusta, Perry pointed out, and are often successful at pushing through proposals for projects such as the parking garage and a planned patient care tower at the hospital.
“But nurses have the support of the community,” he said.
In an interview in her office after the rally, EMMC’s chief nursing officer Lorraine Rodgerson said complaints about nurse-to-patient staffing ratios comes up at the end of every contract period. But in her daily rounds through the hospital, she said,“nurses are not telling me that. I hear it every three years; I don’t hear it between times.”
Rodgerson said about 25 nursing positions have been eliminated at EMMC over the past year, but no union nurses have lost their jobs in the process. Reported medication errors have decreased during that time, she said. The cuts reflect a trending decrease in patient census and other factors related to the poor economy, she said, as well as anticipated reductions in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.
Greg Howat, vice president for human resources, said nursing unions have a “national agenda” of standardizing nurse-to-patient ratios. “But staffing needs to be based on local conditions, not a one-size-fits-all for the whole nation,” he said.
While a planned dramatic expansion of EMMC facilities has been put on the back burner for the time being, Rodgerson said it is essential that the hospital invest in its physical infrastructure. For example, she said, the hospital’s surgical suites are 30 years old and in need of updating.
“We have to have the facilities to provide the care in,” she said.
About 860 nurses at EMMC are covered by the union contract, which will expire at midnight Thursday. A federal mediator is in Bangor this week to help the two sides find acceptable middle ground. Asked if a nursing strike was possible, Brown said it would be up to the membership to decide whether the hospital’s final offer is acceptable.