The nurses went to Greylock Federal Credit Union on Wednesday to make a pitch to CEO John Bissell, who sits on the hospital's board of trustees.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — BMC's registered nurses are now making a pitch to get the hospital's board of trustees on their side.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association has been in challenging contract negotiations with Berkshire Health Systems. After what they called a fairly unproductive negotiating session on Tuesday, the nurses are attempting to meet with members of the board of trustees.
On Wednesday, nine members of the MNA's bargaining committee showed up at Greylock Federal Credit Union on West Street in an attempt to meet with Trustee, and Greylock CEO, John Bissell.
"We are hoping he can go back to the bargaining committee with information relating to our stories, what is happening with our patients, and have a conversation to move forward and settle this issue," said Berkshire Medical Center registered nurse Jodi Stefanik.
The union wasn't successful though. Upon entering the credit union, Stefanik spoke with a customer service representative, who told the nurses that Bissell was on vacation and unavailable. Nonetheless, Spefanik dropped off some 450 "unsafe staffing forms," which are complaints nurses have documented relating to staffing issues, and left a number to set up a meeting time.
"He has a say in what's going on with our negotiations, our staffing, and our workload at this point. It has been over three years and we are at a critical mass right now. We are working with so much less and taking care of so many more patients and it is dangerous," Stefanik said.
"What we were hoping to do is give him information, share with him some stories of nurses that are going through this day to day. And hopefully, give him a little more education about what is truly happening."
The nurses say they had previously called Bissell and other members of the board of trustees but have gotten minimal response. The nurses say they've sent letters, called, and have even resorted to showing up at homes and businesses in attempts to set up meetings with trustees.
"We're not trying to bargain with them. The most important thing is we are trying to get safety in the hospital," Stefanik said.
Bissell was particularly targeted on Wednesday because of his standing in the community.
"We hold him responsible in the community. He is a community leader. He is some one who has taken the position, whether that is volunteer or not, and he has a responsibility to each and every one of us to take that seriously. He has say-so of what goes on in that hospital because he is a board member and he should that very seriously," Stefanik said.
But the push to speak with the trustees may not be too fruitful. The hospital says the trustee's policy is "not to discuss employment or any other sensitive matters outside of the board room."
Hospital Spokesman Michael Leary said the trustees are briefed by hospital management about negotiations and have access to the union's publicity.
"The volunteer members of the Berkshire Health Systems Board of Trustees work hard to fulfill their stewardship responsibilities in assuring that this key community healthcare provider stays strong and effective, especially in this challenging healthcare climate," Leary said.
"They remain informed on all significant developments affecting the Health Systems, including employment and labor relations matters. Not only are they regularly briefed by management on the status of negotiations, they have available to them the union's own publicity efforts. It is the policy and duty of the board, however, not to discuss employment or any other sensitive matters outside of the board room."
There were no signs of disrespect from either the nurses or the credit union office on Wednesday -- no police presence or additional security. The nurses delivered the forms and left a number. The nurses hope they'll have a meeting with all members of the board of trustees soon and have scheduled an informational meeting on Sept. 20, should the negotiations extend that long, at the library to meet with community members.
However, animosity between the hospital's leadership and the nurses has continued. The nurses have filed two complaints with the National Labor Relations Board -- first accusing hospital officials of interfering with the union vote on authorizing the bargaining committee to call a strike and the second alleging a lack of information regarding health insurance.
Despite what seems to be a standstill in negotiations, both sides are continuing to return to the table. The two sides met on Tuesday and will meet again next week. A federal mediator has been assisting in the talks.
The nurses specifically have been citing the need for increased staffing levels, which they picketed about back in 2014 in the wake of the closure of North Adams Regional Hospital. Stefanik says since then, things have only gotten worse. The nurses say they've documented hundreds of cases when they say the staffing levels were sub par.
When the nurses and the hospital began negotiations, the union was pushing for specific staffing ratios in the contract. That would have established minimum requirements for the number of registered nurses on duty at one time based on the number of patients, levels of sickness, and shift.
Hospital officials, however, said they don't want to essentially give up control of how the hospital is staffed. The hospital has an internal staffing department that reviews the information and deploys resources as needed. But, those resources don't necessarily have to be nurses. The hospital calls it a team approach to providing care in which sometimes a unit may be short on nurses, but there are doctors and other specialists working the floor.
The hospital returned with a proposal to create a staffing committee consisting of union officials and nurses. That committee would meet regularly, review the data, and then make recommendations for any staffing changes. Hospital officials see that as a way to bring in the concerns of the nurses to the decision-making process without taking away flexibility. By putting ratios into the contract, the hospital would be liable for violating the contract should those staffing levels fall short at a given time.
The hospital has outlined the proposal on its website and it boasts of 10 percent worth of pay raises over three years, quality health insurance, and the staffing committee.
"We cannot agree to the demand by the MNA that we accept its fixed staffing ratios or similar language that has the effect of controlling staffing decisions or its proposal that nurses cannot be temporarily reassigned from less busy units of the hospital to more busy ones to perform basic nursing services in relief of their colleagues," according to the statement on the website.
The nurses say there is already a staffing committee that is ineffective. In May, nurses rejected that hospital's "best and final offer" by a union vote.
The nurses responded with a proposal for language changes which alleviates a charge nurse from being assigned patients. That, they said, would allow for an extra hand on the floor and somebody to manage what is happening at a given time.
The hospital, however, had already presented its final offer after months and months of negotiations. They see the nurse's push for staffing as part of a statewide push by the MNA -- and multiple MNA chapters across the state have either gone to a strike or near a strike over the similar issues. The MNA is also pushing for a statewide ballot initiative regarding the topic.
There are other issues regarding the health insurance, which the hospital is proposing to change the percentage nurses pay from 10 percent to 20 percent of the premium to align with other staff members, and the length of the contract still unsettled. The two sides continue to meet but both sides have seemingly dug their heels in.
In July, the union voted to give its bargaining committee the authority to call a one-day strike. The hospital crafted plans to respond to that, which includes bringing in replacement nurses. In early August, the bargaining committee gave a 30-day notice to alleviate itself from a condition in the current contract preventing a strike.
The bargaining committee would need to give a 10-day notice of a strike. The one-day strike could happen any time after Sept. 1, after a notice.
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