|BMC Nurses Call Off Strike|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
09:23AM / Friday, February 23, 2018
|The nurses were poised to go on strike on Tuesday.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The union nurses at Berkshire Medical Center have called off next week's planned strike.
After a late night of last-minute negotiations Thursday, the local Massachusetts Nurses Association chapter opted to withdraw the strike notice as contract negotiations have progressed. The nurses were planning on a one-day strike on Tuesday, which likely have been followed by a lockout.
"We made enough progress to avert the strike scheduled for Tuesday and continue bargaining with the hospital," reads a notice from the local MNA to its membership.
But, "we retain the right to re-issue another 10-day notice for a one-day strike if necessary."
Some 800 nurses in the union have been in difficult contract negotiations with the hospital for about a year and a half after the last agreement expired in September 2016. The strike would have been the second during this period. The nurses went on a one-day strike in October followed by a four-day lockout by BMC.
"We are glad to have made enough progress to avert our one-day strike for now," said Alex Neary, co-chair of the union's bargaining committee. "We retain the right to re-issue our strike notice if the hospital does not agree to a contract that both protects and improves patient care and provides nurses fair health insurance."
BMC Spokesman Michael Leary said he is pleased that the strike has been postponed and hopes to find a "reasonable and mutually agreeable conclusion to our negotiations."
"We offered our nurses a comprehensive, fair contract package long ago, and have made favorable adjustments to that proposal over the last several months. Yesterday, our bargaining team made one last effort to bring the contract negotiations to a satisfactory end by presenting further enhancements," Leary said.
"These included language promising to not change the RN staffing grids in a way that would increase the number of patients assigned to RNs between now and the proposed end date of the contract. We also offered language making it clear that clinical team leaders and permanent charge nurses generally would not be expected to take a patient assignment except under very limited circumstances, and then with limited duration. These offers would result in the first staffing language we have agreed to insert in any of our contracts."
Leary noted that the hospital has also proposed extending the contract to four years as well as "significant salary increases."
"We are pleased that the strike has been postponed as a result of our new offer and we are proud of our negotiating team, which has worked so hard over the past year and a half, and yesterday met for an extensive period to offer a package that is fair to all. We are continuing to negotiate and hopeful that we can find a resolution," he said.
The nurses have been primarily focused on raising staffing levels, saying there are far too few nurses to handle the number and condition of the patients. The nurses have been voicing concern about the level of staffing since 2014, when the union held a rally over the increased census numbers
following the closure of the former North Adams Regional Hospital.
But hospital officials don't want to get contractually locked into set numbers of registered nurses and say care is provided through multiple disciplines. The hospital has presented a few options including staffing committees but those didn't give the nurses enough of a guarantee that the situation would improve.
The union's last proposal calls for charge nurses to be unassigned to patients as well as language ensuring the staffing ratios currently outlined at the hospital aren't diminished. The hospital, however, issued a letter written by CEO David Phelps and Chief Operating Officer Diane Kelly on Feb. 6 saying that isn't a demand they can accept.
"Our current practice and goal is to never schedule a charge nurse/clinical team leader for a patient assignment and to avoid that event whenever we reasonably can. However, as we all know, the work demands on each of us change from day-to-day and even over the course of a single day because of unexpected circumstances, including spikes in patient census, unusual changes in patient acuity and unscheduled absences of our colleagues," the hospital's leadership wrote.
"Of course, those unpredictable events affect the registered nursing realm of work as well. Accordingly, fixing in stone a highly restrictive patient assignment limitation for charge nurses/clinical team leaders is not a demand that we can prudently accept."
As negotiations passed the midnight hour Thursday night, however, the union felt the hospital made enough progress on the issue to avert the strike.
"Management started the day on Thursday by saying they were motivated to settle because of our looming strike date and their need on Friday to pay replacement nurses for their lockout. They agreed not to diminish staffing grids and increased their wage and differential offers," the MNA wrote in an update sent out Friday morning.
"However, they still refuse to make any staffing improvements, maintaining their previous position on charge nurses."
The hospital said throughout the process it had made numerous concessions trying to reach an agreement, including during the negotiation sessions following the strike, and maintained that it was always willing to bargain.
On Feb. 13, the two sides held a lengthy negotiation session, which at the time was the last one scheduled before the strike. The union had at that point given a counter proposal and in turn, the hospital responded with one. According to MNA spokesman Joe Markman, that proposal regarding charge nurses and staffing grids was "full of loopholes." The union pulled together a series of questions and the hospital agreed to respond with a "comprehensive response."
The negotiations have been aided by a federal mediator and that continued on Thursday.
"We made various counter proposals throughout the day and night, focusing especially on staffing improvement. Our patient care conditions need to get better. We remain committed to charge nurses without an assignment or with a limited assignment, and the need for the hospital to post and recruit for positions necessary to fulfill their contractual obligations. We will not have a contract without staffing improvements," the MNA wrote.
The hospital said the offer it put forth on Thursday calls for 12 percent salary increases for the nurses over the life of the contract and increased pay for differentials. The salary increases do include some retroactive pay to October of 2017.
The contract would be in place until September of 2020.
The offer includes increases the night differential from $2 to $3.50, evenings from $1.25 to $2.10, and BSN from $1 to $2. The on-call rate would be increased to $4 on non-holidays and $4.50 on holidays.
The offer also preserves the hospital's to determine staffing and assignments but includes language saying the hospital "will not exercise those rights to diminish the staffing grids as they apply to registered nurses."
"The parties understand that daily staffing guidelines are subject to variation due to uncontrollable or unpredictable daily occurrence including, among other occurrences, unplanned increases in census, unplanned absences, and unpredictable increases in patient acuity. Accordingly, such episodes of the medical center's inability to meet these grids will not be subject to grievance and arbitration," the offer reads.
The offer still proposes to a change to the share paid by nurses from 10 percent now to 20 percent. More details on that offer can be found here
Neither side wanted a strike. The nurses would be out of work and lose pay during the event and the hospital would pay millions to bring in temporary nurses and make other changes.
"A strike is a costly event. We expect that we will, once again, have to spend $3 to $4 million dollars to continue to meet our community's needs during a second registered nurses' walkout. That is $3 to 4 million that will not be available to invest in our people, technology and facilities to meet the needs of our community and other community providers, despite their growing dependence on us," the hospital wrote.
The nurses also seeks information on the hospital's health insurance proposal, which is eyed to shift a greater percentage of the cost to the employees. The hospital previously rejected much of the information requested saying the union was overstepping its bounds. The hospital provided the details on how the rates were set, including local.
The union then asked for detailed information on the current medical and prescription drug plans; monthly paid claims separated by medical and prescription drug claims; monthly enrollment for three years; all changes made; the most recent data on administration, network, case management, clinical program, stop loss, and other fees associated with the prescription plan; the working rates for plans, and a census of employees eligible and enrolled in the various plans including date of birth, gender, ZIP code, status, and medical tier.
The union said that has not been provided so an agreement on that has yet to be reached.
The union's bargaining unit had given its notice of a strike on Jan. 16. That gave the hospital more than legally required 10-day notice, which the union hoped would be enough to bring forth an agreement.
The nurses will still hold what they are calling "a patient safety vigil" on Monday at 5:30 p.m. outside of the main hospital.
The staffing issue has been taken up by MNA chapters throughout the state and nurses at multiple hospitals have gone on strike. The issue will also find a place on the state election ballot, as advocates have pushed for the patient to nurse ratios be written into law.
Nurses at Baystate Franklin Medical Center have scheduled a strike from Wednesday.