By Aaron Nicodemus TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
WORCESTER — A “last, best and final” offer from UMass Memorial Health Care to its nurses union is “worse than before,” according to a union spokesman, leaving the possibility of a one-day nurses strike next Thursday as a real possibility.
Earlier this week, UMass Memorial issued its final contract offer to the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents 2,000 nurses who work at the University, Memorial and Hahnemann campuses.
Although the two sides disagree on changes to pension benefits and health care contributions, the main issue is staffing.
The nurses union has called staffing levels at UMass Memorial Medical Center “unsafe.” They have demanded mandatory minimum levels of five patients to every one nurse, for all shifts and all departments.
UMass Memorial said such a move would add 150 full-time nurses and $30 million to $40 million to the hospital group’s budget, at a time of declining revenues. UMass Memorial had countered with an offer of 27 nurses added, at a cost of $4 million.
In its “final” offer, hospital management offered to meet demands from the nurses on patient-to-nurse ratios of 5-to-1 in several departments and during the day shift, but offered 6-to-1 ratios on evening and overnight shifts. It also offered to have staffing levels in the maternity department at the Memorial campus to meet levels set by a national maternity nurses advocacy group.
UMass Memorial spokesman Robert Brogna said the final offer was worth $10.8 million in additional salary, but he could not discuss numbers of new nurses.
“This is our last, best and final proposal,” he said in a prepared statement. “This proposal represents our commitment to mutually beneficial negotiations and we strongly believe it is a win for all parties. It would allow the medical center to enhance its already-safe staffing in a fiscally responsible manner. We urge the MNA to act in the best interests of its nurses, our patients and the community by accepting our proposal.”
Nurses say leaving shifts and departments with 6-to-1 ratios is unsafe.
“It’s much more dangerous for nurses and patients,” said Margaret McLoughlin, an intensive care unit nurse at the University campus and co-chairwoman of the negotiating team. “We’ve been saying over and over to them that we need these levels in order to be safe. I feel like it has fallen on deaf ears.”
Ellen Smith, another ICU nurse at the University campus, called management’s offer “disappointing.”
“We sent a big message to management when we took our strike vote,” said Ms. Smith, co-chair of the negotiating team for the University campus. “It hasn’t been heard.”
UMass Memorial has given the nurses a deadline of noon Friday to agree to a deal, or the hospital group will hand over a check to an agency that will bring replacement nurses to the hospital May 23, the day of the strike.
“It’s unbelievable to me that they are willing to spend $4.7 million to pay nurses who will endanger patients, instead of using that money to hire more nurses,” said David Schildmeier, director of communications for the MNA. “It’s irresponsible and dangerous.”
Mr. Brogna, the UMass Memorial spokesman, confirmed the $4.7 million figure.
UMass Memorial and the nurses union have been in negotiations this week and expect to be in a marathon session today.
“We are going to work all night on a settlement,” Mr. Schildmeier said. “We don’t want to have to strike. We want to settle this.”
The nurses union has informed the hospital group that it intends to strike at 6 a.m. May 23 and would not return to work until 6 a.m. the next day.
The hospital wrote in a letter to nurses that it would lock them out for five days and staff the three campuses with replacement nurses.
Should UMass Memorial Health Care’s 2,000 nurses go on strike, it would be the largest hospital strike in state history.
Two years ago, nurses at St. Vincent Hospital, also represented by the MNA, gave the hospital notice that they intended to strike. The two sides reached agreement hours before the strike was supposed to take place. At other hospitals, in Quincy earlier this year and Greenfield in 2012, nurses went on one-day strikes and returned to work the next day.