“Recruit, Retain, Respect” | Nurses at Backus Hospital Speak Out

Things are heating up at Backus Hospital in Norwich, Connecticut. Drive by the facility and you will see dozens of nurses standing outside holding signs demanding safer working conditions. The strike comes after months of failed negotiations between the corporate leaders of the hospital and the nurses on the ground, many who feel as if they are putting their lives at risk due to a lack of PPE and staff.

The president of Backus Hospital says they did everything to avoid a strike, but the nurses won’t back down until the facility gets more providers on the floor, so nurses don’t have to run from room to room caring for patients as the pandemic rages on.

On the Ground in Norwich, CT

The last few days have been contentious as the nurses at the facility stood their ground on the streets outside of the hospital. Nurses have been standing in the pouring rain at all hours of the day holding signs. There’s been live music, emotional speeches, and live speakers, including local politicians and union leaders.

For Victoria Fitzhugh, a nurse at Backus, the fight has been particularly exhausting. She had just gotten off the overnight shift when she walked outside the hospital at 7 AM to see her colleagues huddled together on the soggy streets. Having been awake for over 24 hours, she quickly put on a rain jacket and took her place on the picket line to support her colleagues.

At that point, the nurses at Backus had been protesting for 48 hours straight with no signs that they were planning to let up anytime soon.

Fitzhugh has only been working at Backus for five months, joining the team in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Connecticut was hit hard by the virus earlier in the year, and now cases are starting to tick up as the East Coast braces for colder weather and flu season. For months, she says she’s been racing from patient to patient in the hospital without enough PPE or staff to go around, all of which have increased her chances of infection.

On Washington Street, Fitzhugh held a sign that read, “7 patients to 1 nurse is not safe, safe staffing saves lives.”

Speaking to a local news outlet, she said, “Seven patients to one nurse should be the exception, not the rule. I got into nursing to be with people when they’re at their lowest, to comfort them and support them, and I can’t do that when I’m running from room to room.”

Susannah Angelapoulos said:

“I am a nurse at Backus Hospital and the strike was a last resort as we (the union) have met with the hospital over 20 times to secure a safe and fair contract and they refuse to negotiate fairly. We hope to obtain nurse retention- through respect, adequate and safe staffing as well as wages within a range that reflect those of the competing hospitals in the region.”

Respecting Essential Workers

Safer staffing ratios have been the main focus of the strike, which means recruiting and retaining more nurses, but there are other issues on the table as well. “Recruit, retain, respect,” one nurse’s poster said.

The nurses at the facility are represented by AFT, the American Federation of Teachers, which also represents healthcare providers. After 23 failed negotiations with hospital leaders and Hartford HealthCare, of which Backus Hospital is a member, the nurses said they had no option but to hit the streets.

In addition to asking for more PPE and nurses on the floor, the staff also wants dedicated nursing rooms so working mothers can breastfeed their children in private. The slogan, “Let nurses nurse,” was a common phrase during the demonstration.

Donna Perry, who’s worked at Backus for 21 years as a labor and delivery nurse, said, “We’re working 12-, 16-hour shifts, it’s horrible for everyone but if you are a pumping mother, it’s exceptionally difficult.”

Sal Luciano, president of the Connecticut American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, says the time for thoughts and prayers is over.

Standing at the microphone, he gave an impassioned speech: “Today we’re not asking for hearts on mailboxes, we’re not asking for hearts on windows, we’re not asking for banging pots and pans. We’re asking that Hartford HealthCare treat nurses with the respect and dignity they have earned and deserve with all the sacrifices they’ve made and will make.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney was also on hand to show his support for nurses, commending them for their ability to help flatten the curve in the state of Connecticut. “The second wave is coming, folks, and once again the nurses are going to be the ones that the call goes out to,” he said at the rally.

So, how is management responding?

In an official statement, Backus Hospital President Donna Handley called the strike “heartbreaking.”

She confirmed that the facility has been trying to meet the nurses’ demands, but that all 23 bargaining sessions ended in a stalemate. The talks included negotiations over PPE, safe staffing levels, and more protections for working mothers, but the two groups couldn’t see eye-to-eye.

Handley says the hospital offered wage increases for all registered nurses over a three-year contract, amounting to 12.5% over three years, additional paid time off for 82% of nurses and a 2% reduction in health care premiums.

While Handley said the strike has caused “an unprecedented degree of disruption during an unprecedented health crisis,” she noted the hospital would remain open and fully functional.

We wish the nurses at Backus Hospital the best as they continue their fight for safer working conditions. 

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