Management Walked Out of Talks on Tuesday, Refusing to Address Nurses’ Staffing Concerns Threatens to Impose Four-Day Lockout After the Strike, Subjecting Patients to Substandard Care by Replacement Nurses Drawn from All Over the Country
Nurses at the University Hospital Campus of UMMMC have the Worst RN Staffing Levels in the City of Worcester; Seek Safe Limits on Nurses Patient Assignments
WORCESTER, MA – In response to deteriorating patient care conditions, the 1,100 registered nurses who work at the University Hospital campus of UMass Memorial Medical Center (UMMMC) in Worcester plan to conduct a one-day strike on Thursday, May 23. The strike would be the largest nurses’ strike in Massachusetts history. A pre-strike Rally for the nurses and community supporters has also been scheduled for Wednesday, May 22, beginning at 6 p.m. at Coral Seafood Restaurant, located at 225 Shrewsbury St. in Worcester.
The decision to strike followed a failed round of talks held with the federal mediator on Tuesday, where hospital management walked out without addressing the nurses’ serious concerns about poor patient care conditions caused by chronic understaffing of nurses at this level one trauma and transplant center. In addition to forcing a one-day strike, hospital management is threatening to impose a four-day lockout of the nurses after the strike, subjecting patients to substandard care by replacement nurses drawn from all over the country who have no familiarity with the facility, the physician community or the intricate systems in place to deliver appropriate patient care.
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.
The UMasss University campus nurses cast an overwhelming vote to authorize a strike for safe staffing on April 11, and standing room only crowds at open meetings held last night once again endorsed the union leadership’s decision to strike on May 23. The one-day strike will begin at 6 a.m. on Thursday, May 23 and will end on Friday, May 24 at 6:00 a.m., when the nurses are prepared to re-enter the facility and resume providing care to their patients. If the hospital follows through with its plan to lock out the nurses, the nurses will maintain their picket lines throughout the lockout and continue their demonstration for safer staffing to ensure quality patient care.
Last 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 and night shifts. The evening shift 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 and for additional staff to care for patients cared for in the hospitals busy psychiatric unit, where nurses can be assigned as many as 13 patients at one time. 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 stacks 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. “We are disappointed by management’s refusal to negotiate a settlement to this contract, yet we are committed to standing up for patients as they have the most to lose if management is allowed to continue with its dangerous staffing practices."
In presenting its proposal last week, the hospital issued an ultimatum to nurses that they had to accept the offer by noon on Friday, May 17, as that was the time the hospital needed to make a $4.7 million down payment to a nurse staffing agency that provides replacement nurses to hospitals during strikes. 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 to avoid making necessary improvements in care. The nurses are also concerned about the quality and safety of care provided by these replacement nurses, given that UMass Memorial Medical Center is a level one trauma center.
"It takes a temporary or agency travel 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 Ellen Smith, RN, co-chair of the University 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."
“Our members are tired of working in an environment that they know is unsafe for our patients and they are ready to make a stand on May 23 and throughout the lock out period for the improvements we need to protect them,” Smith concluded.
The nurses and management began negotiations for a new union contract in February 2012 for the University campus nurses and in November 2011 for the Memorial/Hahnemann campus nurses. To date more than 23 sessions have been held with each of the two committees, with a number of sessions held with a federal mediator. Last Friday, the nurses at the Memorial and Hahnemann campus reached a tentative agreement on a new contract that provides the safe staffing limits they needed to improve patient care, yet management has refused to engage in a similar effort with the University campus nurses, where the staffing levels are the worst.