BMC Management Focusing On Inside While Nurses Strike Outside
But inside, management isn't focused on what's happening just beyond the campus' property line. They're focused on what's happening inside.
"There is a lot of discussion about what is happening outside and there is not much we can do about that. We decided to focus on what is going to happen inside our walls," President David Phelps said.
That started months ago when the local chapter of the Massachusetts Nursing Association took a vote to authorize the bargaining committee to strike. The hospital's administration crafted a plan alongside the Massachusetts Department of Health aimed to provide the same level of care to the patients as always while 800 of their employees were on strike.
"We are happy to report that the plan was a good one. It has gone almost exactly as planned," Phelps said.
The nurses went on a one-day strike on Tuesday, but that is being followed by a four-day lockout. The hospital had contracted with U.S. Nursing Corp. to bring in 247 traveling nurses, who showed up on time and ready to work. The nurses work the for the agency and travel all across the United States, filling in during strikes and bolstering staff when hospitals are short. The nurses are specifically trained in various disciplines and Berkshire Medical Center picked the nurses with the right criteria to fill the jobs.
"Health care at Berkshire is a team sport. The new nurses have fit in with our culture and have quickly stepped up to meet the needs that were left when our nurses walked out for the one-day strike," Phelps said.
Phelps said those nurses were added to some 2,800 other regular employees. He said the Department of Public Health has been on site conducting interviews with patients and staff members and have no negative findings.
Chief Operating Officer Diane Kelly said the nurses are working 12-hour shifts, for the most part, to cover the five days — thus a 60-hour shift for each one. The rest of the employee schedules have remained unchanged, though some exempt employees have put in some extra hours during the strike.
"There is no change in any of our staffing patterns. We have not lessened the number of nurses or increased," Kelly said.
Kelly added that the plan was crafted to mimic the staffing on a regular day. And the hospital has remained as busy as ever, she said. Kelly said there are 247 in patients and in the operating room, there were 27 scheduled procedures and eight had been added on. And there had been 32 endoscopy procedures.
"Those are normal numbers. We are seeing about the same volume in the emergency department. That one is a little hard to report because it changes every 15 minutes but it is a regular day," Kelly said. "You can really tell your volume of the emergency room through the volume of the in-patient because many of our patients turns into an admission."
She did address rumors that surgeries had been canceled because of the strike. She said when she heard that she contacted the department and asked if there were any surgeons with concern. But she didn't hear anything.
"We did have one surgeon who did have some cases moved from Tuesday to Wednesday and that was because just because of his schedule, not unusual," Kelly said.
The strike has caused minimal distraction from patient care, she said.
"We're seeing all of our other employees are really very focused and very committed and making sure everything is going smoothly," Kelly said. "Especially since they are working with these new nurses and want them to feel part of the team. We're not seeing any concern in that area."
The two administrators said they have a command center set up to address anything that could arise during the strike, but only minor tinkering of the plan has been needed. The nurses went on strike for one whole day and on Wednesday morning approached the hospital looking to return to work.
Right by the front gate, Kelly was joined by Chief Nursing Officer Brenda Cadorette and Vice President of Human Resources Arthur Milano right outside of the main entrance to greet the union nurses. They delivered copies of letters penned before the strike informing them of the lockout. The hospital is locking the union nurses out of work until the contract with the replacement nurses expires.
"We were clear here when they started talking about a strike vote and telling their members it would not be a day, we've sent letters, we've talked to them, we've made sure that everybody knew in the union it is impossible for us to meet the needs of our community for a day. It would have to be five days," Phelps said.
"For them now to act surprised and prop us this walkout thing, it is a little bit disingenuous. Our choices as a hospital is to close for a day, which we can't do, or find replacement workers to come for the five-day minimum. You can't fly 250 nurses from around the country to swing by Pittsfield for a day."
In dramatic fashion, the nurses pleaded their case to come back to work Wednesday morning and burst into a chant of "our hospital, our patients." Phelps, however, said is exactly what happened in other hospitals in the state that has gone on strike. The hospital's strike plan had been partly crafted and designed after following patterns the Massachusetts Nurses Association had during strikes elsewhere.
"The nurse would like everybody to think the world started today when they tried to come back to work. The fact is the Mass Nurses Association has had three strikes in Massachusetts and they all had similar attributes. They call for a one-day strike and they know it is impossible for a hospital to provide coverage for the community for a day. It is just impossible to get and to do. Yet they keep calling them," Phelps said.
Also saying, "we would do anything to avoid locking our nurses out. This is a decision the union made and they knew the repercussions."
The hospital says it will be spending an estimated $4 million, between replacement nurses, security, and any other associated costs for the strike. The administrators can hear what is happening outside but have been keeping focused on executing its strike plan.
"It is outside, we keep it outside. We don't like that they say things about our organization which we find a bit offensive. But we get it, that's how these things go. On occasion they say things about some of us personally," Phelps said.
But both Phelps and Kelly did say they appreciate the way the nurses have been picketing. They said in other strikes across the country, the workers have blocked traffic, entrances, and have intentionally gotten in the way of business operations. That hasn't happened at Berkshire Medical Center.
"The union has been cooperative. They didn't try to get in the way," Phelps said.
Aided in making sure traffic and the thousands of patients who come to the campus — including the medical arts side — was beefed up security. Phelps wouldn't reveal how much was invested in bringing in a private security company for the week, but said they're prepared if anything else happens.
"We had planned for a strike and possible incidents that could occur. We saw what happened at Tufts, which had some very violent aspects to it. We wanted to make sure that the picketers, our nurses, the employees who were coming to work, and our patients were safe. If that meant spending more and overdoing security, we'd rather invest more and do that than underfund it," Phelps said.
On Sunday, the replacement nurses will leave and the unionized nurses will return to work. The strike will end but the negotiations over a contract will still be ongoing. Both sides have voiced willingness to return to the table, but when a breakthrough will happen and an agreement can be reached is unknown.
"I suspect within a week or 10 days after the strike is over, we settle in, get back to our normal work, and find dates through the mediator and we'll be meeting again," Phelps said.
Tags: BMC, MNA, nurses, strike,
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