The UMass Memorial Medical Center nurses, who are scheduled to conduct a one-day strike on May 23, head back to the table today for a third day of negotiations with UMass Memorial management this week in the hopes of reaching a settlement to address their serious concerns about poor patient care conditions caused by chronic understaffing of nurses.
The key sticking point in negotiations is the hospital’s refusal to agree to a safe limit on nurses’ patient assignments, which nurses report is resulting in delays in care, substandard care and, according to published findings by the federal Medicare program, is resulting in UMass patients suffering preventable readmissions at among the highest rates in the state.
This week, the hospital issued what it is calling a "last, best and final offer" to the nurses, which, unfortunately, is worse than their previous staffing proposals, as they now are demanding the right to assign nurses up to six patients at one time on the evening shifts, which is the busiest and most hectic shift for hospital nurses. According to the medical research, a six-patient assignment places all six patients at a 14 percent increased risk of death and a 53 percent increased risk of respiratory failure. The nurses are seeking a limit of no more than five patients on the medical surgical units, improvements in staffing in the emergency department, maternity and neonatal intensive care units, and a commitment by management not to make further cuts in staffing. The hospital has implemented more than six layoffs in the last two years, eliminating hundreds of nurses and support staff positions, at a time when UMass Memorial has posted more than $80 million in profits over the last two years.
"After we have spent two years raising concerns about deplorable conditions for our patients, after filing hundreds of official reports of unsafe care, after the hospital has been penalized for excessive readmissions for patients, we were shocked to see management put a proposal on the table that would make things worse for our patients," said Margaret McLoughlin, RN, a critical care nurse and co-chair of the UMass Memorial Medical Center local bargaining unit for the University campus RNs. "As we prepare for a strike to protect our patients, we are still hopeful that management will work with us today to reach an agreement that will address our concerns so that we can provide the quality care our patients deserve."
In presenting its proposal this week, the hospital issued an ultimatum to nurses that they need to accept the offer by noon on Friday, as that is the time the hospital needs to make a $4.7 million down payment to a nurse staffing agency that provides replacement nurses to hospitals during strikes. UMass management has told the nurses and the media that if the nurses conduct their one-day strike, management will lock the nurses out and operate the hospital with the replacements for another five days. The $4.7 million is only the initial payment for the lock out. The total cost if they go through with the lock out will be much higher than the initial $4.7 million.
The nurses are appalled that the hospital is choosing to spend millions of dollars to lock out its nurses so that they can continue their dangerous staffing practices. The nurses are also concerned about the quality and safety of care provided by these replacements, given that UMass Memorial Medical Center is a level one trauma center.
"It takes a new nurse hired at our hospital between two to four weeks to become oriented to our facility and to be competent to provide quality care when we have our regular staffing in place," said Colleen Wolfe, RN, co-chair of UMass Memorial Medical Center's Memorial/Hahnemann campus bargaining unit. "How can they possibly expect to safely operate this hospital with thousands of nurses, drawn from all parts of the country, who have no experience with our facility, our systems, or physicians and patient population? There is no way this hospital can function safely under those conditions. It is irresponsible. Instead of issuing ultimatums and spending millions to ignore us, it's time they listened to us and worked with us to address this crisis."
Talks are being held at the DCU Center throughout the day today, and the nurses are committed to negotiating today and every day to reach an agreement to avert a strike.
"We don't want to strike, we want to achieve a fair agreement" McLoughlin concluded, "but we are prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure appropriate care for our patients and safe conditions for our nurses."