Hospital officials greeted the nurses at the door Wednesday morning, but aren't letting them back to work. The lockout will last until Sunday morning, when the contract with the replacement nurses ends.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The unionized nurses at Berkshire Medical Center are certainly making their voices known this week, as they picket outside of the hospital.
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.
Nurses at Berkshire Medical Center went 36 years without a labor strike. But that was until Tuesday. The local chapter of the Massachusetts Nursing Association took to the picket line on Tuesday after a year of contract negotiations have seemingly hit a wall. The union and supporters gathered just outside of the property line, forming two lines and holding signs, awaiting the nurses ending their shift at 7 a.m. to walk through.
The nurses will be silent on Tuesday morning when the nurses walk out on the job and head to the picket lines. But, on Monday night, the nurses were filled with songs and speeches as it held a vigil outside of Berkshire Medical Center prior to the start of the strike.
Berkshire Medical Center brass say they've taken proper precautions to make sure patient care is uninterrupted during the strike and subsequent lock out. "We fully expect that our operations will be as they are any other day. If you are a patient and you need to be here with us or you are scheduled to be here and it is elective, it will be no different than it was any other day," said Berkshire Health Systems President David Phelps during a briefing with the media on Tuesday.
A federal judge has denied Berkshire Medical Center's request for a temporary injunction to halt the one-day strike planned by the nursing union. The hospital had filed an emergency motion requesting the federal courts to put a stop to the strike. The hospital alleged that the union did not follow the proper grievance process as outlined in the contract. On Friday, Judge Mark G. Mastroianni denied that emergency request.
The hospital is seeking a preliminary injunction to halt the nurses strike. Berkshire Medical Center filed for an injunction in federal court, claiming the Massachusetts Nursing Association had not followed contractual obligations prior to calling a strike. The union, however, asserts that the strike is legal and is continued to take to the picket lines on Tuesday.
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.
The hospital has fired back at the MNA with its own complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. Berkshire Health Systems has filed a complaint alleging that the nursing union is not bargaining in good faith, and even "surface bargaining" - a term used to describe bargaining without trying to actually reach a settlement.
After hitting a stalemate in negotiations, the nursing union has released 437 "unsafe staffing forms," which document specific instances when nurses felt they needed more help. The local chapter of the Massachusetts Nursing Association, representing unioned nurses at Berkshire Medical Center, have been negotiations with Berkshire Health Systems on a new contract. Particularly, the nurses say they hope to a contractual agreement to bolster staffing. But, months ago the hospital had already put
BMC 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 the hospital. After what call a fairly unproductive negotiating session on Tuesday, the nurses are attempting to meet with members of the Board of Trustees.
The nurses at BMC have filed a second complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against hospital administrators. The nurses are accusing Berkshire Medical Center leaderships, particularly Vice President of Human Resources Arthur Milano, of denying them information they deem is needed to negotiation health insurance. The nurses asked detailed financials surrounding the hospital's health insurance offer during negotiations.
Another negotiation session concluded Monday and nurses say little progress has been made toward a resolution. Mark Brodeur sits on the bargaining committee and on Monday night he said hospital officials rejected the change put forth by the nurses to leave charge nurses unassigned. The nurses have been trying to push for what they call "safe staffing" in the negotiations and contractually binding the hospital to provide what they see is adequate staff.
The nurses at Berkshire Medical Center have taken the second step toward a strike. The Massachusetts Nursing Association filed a notification to end the existing agreement. The contract currently in place prohibits a strike and while the contract had an expiration date of September 2016, the duration clauses continued that unless a 30-day notice from either side was made or a new contract was signed, the existing one remained in place.
In the middle of a strike authorization vote and the union filing charges against the hospital with the National Labor Relations Board, the Massachusetts Nursing Association and Berkshire Medical Center return to the bargaining table Thursday in hopes to come to an agreement on a new contract.
Berkshire Medical Center has presented what it says will be its "best and final offer" to settle a contract with the nursing union. A letter sent out by President David Phelps and Chief Operating Officer Diane Kelly was released on Wednesday outlining the hospital's offer. The Massachusetts Nurses Association 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.
Nurses and supporters paced back and forth along North Street and Wahconah, holding signs, chanting "if we're out here, something is wrong in there." On the otherside of those walls, the administration is reviewing data showing Berkshire Medical Center ranking in the top when it comes to patient safety and preparing a forum to celebrate those numbers with employees. Outside, the nurses chant that the staffing levels are unsafe. Inside, a staffing office is reviewing the personnel on hand to m
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