PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Massachusetts Nurses Association delivered a 10-day notice to hospital management on Friday notifying it of the local bargaining unit's intent to hold a one-day unfair labor practice strike beginning at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 3, and running until 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 4.
Berkshire Medical Center, however, is characterizing this as a five-day work stoppage because any substitute nurses brought in are contracted for that period of time and will fill the shifts normally worked by union members.
The nurses' union and Berkshire Health Systems have been at an impasse in contract negotiations after nearly a year of talks, with the major sticking point the MNA's insistence that safe staffing levels be part of the conversations.
"For years, we have been raising concerns and attempting to convince management to address what is a clear pattern of unsafe patient care incidents," said Gerri Jakacky, co-chair of the MNA BMC Bargaining Committee. "Rather than address our concerns, management pretends they do not exist or makes excuses to the public. Our community deserves better from its hospital leaders."
The union had been pushing for fixed ratios for the number of nurses based on situations and times. The nurses say they have documented hundreds of occasions when low staffing levels have jeopardized patient care and say they've brought their concerns to the administration to no avail.
Hospital officials say the fixed ratios the MNA wants is part of a state movement for legislation. Instead, they offered to create a staffing committee that includes union officials and nurses to review data and make recommendations. That plan replicated suggestions from the American Nurses Association and had been used in other hospitals in the country to tackle staffing issues.
"We are disappointed but not surprised by today's notification from the Massachusetts Nurses Association of their scheduled strike to begin on Tuesday, Oct. 3," BHS CEO David Phelps and BMC COO Diane Kelly said an a joint statement. "The MNA continues to mislead our community and those who depend on Berkshire Medical Center for their care and employment.
"We have bargained in good faith, offering a strong contract for our nurses, while the union is focused on gaining public support for their ballot initiative."
The nurses' union, which represents nearly 800 registered nurses at BMC, voted overwhelming in July to give the bargaining committee the authority to call a one-day strike. The vote, and subsequent unfair labor complaints, were seen as tactics to move the hospital away from its "best and final" offer.
The MNA in August also filed a notification to end the existing contract that has an expiration date of September 2016. A duration clause in the contract has allowed the union and management to continue operating under its language unless one or the other filed a 30-day notice to end it.
The union hosted a public forum on the nurses's staffing grievances on Tuesday.
"With the community behind us, we are prepared to strike on Oct. 3 for patient safety and a fair contract," said Alex Neary, a nurse and co-chair of the MNA BMC Bargaining Committee. "All other efforts to persuade management to make concrete patient safety improvements and reach a fair agreement have been unsuccessful. It is up to BMC to negotiate in good faith and avoid a strike."
Hospital officials say they have been preparing for the one-day strike since the authorization vote and have a "comprehensive strike plan in place" that has been approved by the state Department of Health. The hospital expcts to continue its operations as normal through the strike period.
"BMC will bring in experienced, qualified replacement nurses to ensure quality patient care during the work stoppage," Phelps and Kelly's statement reads. "The nursing agency requires a minimum five-day contract for replacement nurses, which allows for the appropriate continuity of care. As a result, this labor action, if it goes forward, will run from Tuesday, Oct. 3, through Saturday, Oct. 7."
The union and BMC have also been at odds over health insurance, with the union stating that hospital officials have not shared information on its self-insurance rates. The nurses want options such as employee-plus, and employee plus children; they also say the proposed health insurance rates are too high, often more than managers.
The hospital, for its part, says the nurses were offered a 10 percent raise over three years, with starting registerd nurse salaries that go from $73,000 in year one to over $75,000 in year three, and higher salaries for mid-scale and maximum-scale nurses that by year three amount to more than $116,000 per year; enhanced education support; and improved differential pay.
Even though both sides seem on a collision course for Oct. 3, there's still a possibility that a breakthrough could happen to head that off. The next negotiation date has been scheduled for Sept. 27, less than a week before the one-day strike is set to take place.
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