May 27, 2020
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Nurses’ union threatens strike at Presque Isle hospital

BDN file | BDN
BDN file | BDN
The entrance to The Aroostook Medical Center's emergency department and day surgery center.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Unionized nurses at The Aroostook Medical Center have delivered a 10-day advanced notice of their plan to walk out on strike for two days in protest of staffing concerns they’ve raised in contract negotiations.

The Maine State Nurses Association, representing about 200 nurses at TAMC, notified the hospital on Tuesday of their intent to strike on July 22 and 23, should contract negotiations not be resolved by then. It would be the first time nurses at the 89-bed hospital walked out on strike.

Officials from TAMC, a part of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, and the MSNA have met six times in the past few months negotiating a new contract, after the last one expired July 7. Tentative agreements have been reached on a number of issues, but the nurses say they want the hospital to hire more staff — a goal they’ve sought in contract negotiations since at least 2011.

Kim Cooper, a surgery nurse and union bargaining team member, said the union would like to have a ratio of one nurse for every three patients, in part because of the complexity of hospital patients.

“The beds are almost always full of acutely ill patients,” Cooper said at a rally held by the MSNA in downtown Presque Isle last month. “They have a lot of illnesses, so you’re not just treating the one illness that brought them in, you’re treating the whole disease process.”

While TAMC receives high scores on a number of health care quality and safety measures, Cooper and other nurses said they feel they are facing a high workload in a busy hospital and would like to see more done to retain nurses. Currently the hospital, like others, relies on “travel nurses” on short-term employment, in addition to staff nurses.

“I have been committed to TAMC for 20 years. But over the last five years, I have witnessed turnover and understaffing like never before,” Liane Koch, a nurse who serves as clinical coordinator in the TAMC women and children’s unit, said in a media release.

TAMC nurses, who are currently working under terms of the old contract, said they would return from the strike Sunday, July 24.

Officials with TAMC said they hope to avoid the strike but are preparing for it.

“Our community should rest assured that we will have highly qualified replacement nurses working alongside TAMC staff to provide the high level of care our patients expect,” Jay Reynolds, TAMC’s chief medical officer, said in a separate media release.

Reynolds said that TAMC has presented the nurses union with “a generous offer” and “will continue to negotiate in good faith,” but that the union’s staffing ratio proposal was rejected because it would lack flexibility.

“TAMC exceeds state and national standards and we make adjustments based on patient needs, acuity, volume and other variables,” Reynolds said, adding that the hospital has received an “A” safety score from The Leapfrog Group for low rates of medical errors, injuries, accidents and infections.

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