PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Berkshire Medical Center has presented what it says will be its "best and final offer" to settle a contract with the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
A letter sent out by President David Phelps and Chief Operating Officer Diane Kelly was released on Wednesday outlining the hospital's offer. The MNA and BMC have been at an impasse as the two sides try to negotiate a new three-year contract. The current one expired in September.
"We have always offered our nurses a fair and reasonable financial package and have proposed adjustments this year to keep it so. However, we have now concluded that we cannot reach that appropriate result by continuing the pattern of session after session with the MNA without meaningful progress. This is especially so considering the costs, distraction, and discord generated by these time consuming and often unproductive sessions," the letter reads.
"At this point, we believe we have exhausted discussion on all proposals from both sides of the table. Accordingly, we have given the MNA our best and final offer to settle the contract."
A summary of the contract from the hospital calls for continuing its current staffing guidelines with increased participation from nursing staff, a 10 percent pay raise over three years — consisting of general wage increases of 1 percent in year one and two and 2 percent in year three, step increases of 2 percent, and lump sum of 2 percent for those at the top of the scale — retroactive lump sum of raises if the agreement is reached by the end of the month, and increasing the evening and night differential premiums.
The hospital plans to detail the entire offer on a new website soon.
The offer, however, doesn't have staffing ratios embedded in the contract. That has been a top priority of the union during these sessions. The nurses are asking for what they call "safe staffing" levels. The union says often nurses are working shifts with subpar staffing and the negotiation is to include criteria on the number of nurses during each shift.
"Staffing is still their No. 1 issue and it needs to be addressed," said Joe Markman, a MNA spokesman.
The hospital had proposed creating a staffing board and following guidelines from American Nurses Association. The hospital doesn't want to include those specific ratios because it takes away flexibility in the way staffing is managed. Hospital officials say its staffing board uses professionals from various disciplines to ensure patient safety and wants to retain that ability without having to specifically use nurses for every situation.
Markman said the nurses were working on a proposal to move closer to the hospital's request.
"Going into Tuesday, the nurses were pretty intent on trying to craft something that would bring both sides closer to an agreement," Markman said, adding that there was a counter proposal in the works. "They were really trying to reach an agreement."
But now, Markman says the hospital "threw a wrench in the process" by going with a final offer and he is critical in the way the hospital handled it — by sending out a letter to all staff instead of addressing it at the bargaining table.
"BMC nurses were very disappointed by the letter because of management's representation of facts and its tone," Markman said.
Particularly, the letter took shots at the MNA's focus at the table and alleged the safe-staffing issue was not in response to local conditions but rather a statewide effort. The staffing ratios have been something the MNA is trying to work into contracts in various hospitals.
"Yesterday's negotiating session was scheduled to begin at 9 and conclude at 5 but the union delayed the start by two hours and abruptly ended the session at 3:30 despite our request to continue," the letter reads.
"These ongoing negotiations are obviously an expensive process, but when pursued by two parties with a common goal of achieving a fair contract for all, it yields positive results. However, when one party is distracted by interests beyond those directly related to local conditions, these session can become a wasteful and divisive process."
Markman said the hospital is "lying by omission" and the reason the negotiation was cut short was because the lead negotiator had a family emergency and needed to leave. As for the statewide effort, Markman said it is a concern across the state but it was BMC nurses and the local union officials who prioritized it. The proposals had come from the local nurses, not from the MNA's state agency, he said.
But staffing appears to be the top talking point between the two, a point that led to a picket outside of the hospital earlier this year. Health insurance is also an issue, with the hospital trying to change the percentages employees pay from 10 percent now to 20 percent.
"Registered nurses who select BMC's individual health plan coverage currently contribute less to the premium costs than do all other employees of ours who take the individual coverage," Phelps and Kelly wrote.
"For that reason, we have also asked our registered nurses to forego the special 90/10 health insurance cost sharing arrangement for individual health insurance coverage that we have afforded them until now and replace it with the 80/20 sharing that applies to all other Berkshire Health Systems employees electing that individual coverage."
Markman counters by saying those who choose the family plan are paying more than other employees. He said doctors and managers who take the family plan in some cases pay as much as 70 percent less than some of the nurses. The health insurance plan continues to be another holdup between the two sides.
The two sides have been attempting to hammer out a deal since September and have had 22 negotiating sessions. They are expected to be back at the table on Wednesday but over the weekend the nurses will be holding a standout at Park Square.
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