Things are heating up at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, MA, where around 800 nurses are still on strike after failed negotiations with hospital management. The nurses are being represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association. They’re asking for more providers on the floor to reduce the number of patients per nurse and improve workplace safety, but talks with management are on thin ice as nurses face bullying and intimidation on both sides of the picket line. Here’s what’s been happening on the ground.
The strike started on March 8th and has been getting more intense ever since. Talks first started nearly 18 months ago between St. Vincent’s parent company, Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare, and the MNA, but have since grinded to a halt. The nurses are asking for strict nurse-patient ratios to improve patient care and reduce burnout. In response, Tenet says it offered a generous wage increase, enhanced emergency room security, and better staffing guidelines. But the MNA wasn’t having it.
As the strike went into effect last week, Tenet spent $5.4 million on replacement nurses until the strike could be resolved. Reports show that around 115 nurses crossed the picket line to join the replacement workers inside the hospital.
To protect nurses coming in and out of the hospital, St. Vincent has imposed new security measures. Uniformed police officers are now escorting providers in and out of the building. Incoming nurses must scan their ID badges before coming inside to prevent striking nurses from entering the building. The scanning of badges has led to bottlenecks and delays, so the facility opened two additional entrances in the basement.
The striking nurses have been circulating the facility by the dozens from the early morning to late at night. Some demonstrations have even blocked traffic into the facility’s parking garage. Striking nurses have been relegated to the sidewalk amid strict security requirements.
St. Vincent CEO Carolyn Jackson defended the need for additional security:
“The police officers’ approach must appear as neutral as possible. While to some of our staff they appear partial to the union, some union members have accused them of ‘class-breaking’ and protecting the hospital instead of them. I am in constant communication with the police captain who assures me that no preferential treatment will occur and that their only focus is to ensure everyone’s safety.”
The Picket Line Heats Up
The Massachusetts Nurses Association isn’t the union calling foul. To support the nurses, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445 union, which represents around 600 workers at the facility, including patient care assistants, critical care technicians, clerks, clinical support, housekeeping, radiology assistants, OR aides, and pulmonary tech, held a picket line on March 13th after expressing concerns over staff safety in a letter published on March 10th. The union pointed out that nurse-patient ratios have increased 50% over the past 15 years.
In response to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, St. Vincent spokesperson Rhiana Sherwood said the hospital offered to increase wages 10% to 25% over the contract term, increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, increase Saint Vincent’s share of health insurance premiums for some part-time employees; and addresses multiple other issues raised by union members. Union workers have also been offered bonuses of $250 or $500. The 1445 union has until March 19th to accept the offer.
Hospital CEO Carolyn Jackson has been overtly critical of the MNA and the picket line. She wrote a letter to the union on March 14th accusing union members and representatives of bullying and intimidating nurses who crossed the picket line. She accused the striking nurses of taking photos of the nurses coming into work, calling them “scabs”, and posting photos to the union’s Facebook page.
She also claims striking nurses have been taking photos of nurses’ license plates, yelling “I know where you park,” to nurse managers and workers starting their shifts, and even posting photos online of the hotels where the replacement nurses are staying.
In response to the allegations, the MNA says it doesn’t trust St. Vincent. The union released a statement on March 15th refuting the claims. “There were some isolated incidents where nurses who crossed the line were subject to ridicule at the hospital entrance and on a private nurse’s group [Facebook] page for their decision to undermine the nurse’s effort to improve care at the hospital, and those incidents were addressed immediately.”
It’s not clear when the two parties will reach an agreement. The MNA says it plans to strike from 6 AM to midnight daily until the dispute is resolved.