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Nurse Negotiations

Nurses go on 24-hour strike against Greenfield’s Baystate Franklin Medical Center

Recorder/Chris Shores
Nurses march during 24-hour strike against Baystate Franklin Medical Center, union co-chairs Linda Judd (in front on left) and Donna Stern lead a line of nurses in a procession around the hospital in 2012.

Recorder/Chris Shores Nurses march during 24-hour strike against Baystate Franklin Medical Center, union co-chairs Linda Judd (in front on left) and Donna Stern lead a line of nurses in a procession around the hospital in 2012.

GREENFIELD — A heavy fog was just beginning to lift at 6:50 a.m. on Friday, as about 70 Baystate Franklin Medical Center nurses and their supporters huddled together on the intersection of Beacon and High streets.

Signs hung around their necks — blue and red capital letters proclaimed “Nurses on strike: For patient care” and “Nurses on strike: Protect our patients.” Some waved blue Massachusetts Nurses Association flags, while others shook noisemakers and cheered at the honking of passing cars’ horns.

“We’re here fighting for patient safety,” shouted union co-chair Linda Judd over a megaphone to the crowd gathered in blue MNA windbreakers. “Who’s ready to kick some you-know-what?”

At 7 a.m., the nurses began their march down High Street past the hospital. A 24-hour strike against the hospital — fueled by what the union perceives as unfair hospital policies and attempts to take away negotiation rights — had begun.

Joined by night shift nurses exiting the hospital, the group grew to about 100 as the procession marched around the block on Sanderson and North streets. Police officers and hospital security guards, stationed at the front of parking lot entrances, stood silently as the nurses passed.

Chants were shouted back and forth from within the procession line.

“What do we want?”

“Justice!”

“When do we want it?”

“Now!”

After a year of failed negotiation sessions, nurses said Friday that they had no choice but to strike against the hospital. They accused hospital administrators of putting financial interests over patient safety, and called both the current sick policy and a proposed change in overtime pay unsafe and unfair.

“We really believe that this is going to show Baystate that we are firm on our positions,” said Judd.

“We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t think it was going to make a difference. We didn’t want to strike.”

In the hospital

In what they said was an effort to not jeopardize patient safety, the nurses elected to strike for a single day only. They plan to return to work today, beginning at 7 a.m.

The two sides will meet for another contract negotiation session on Oct. 25.

But hospital officials said Friday that the strike will not cause any change in their negotiation positions.

Baystate Franklin’s current economic situation — the loss of $8 million in the last two years, and a need for the Baystate Health system to reduce its budget by $120 million in the next three years — has made it impossible for administrators to turn back on the cost-saving measures they have been fighting for, said hospital President Chuck Gijanto.

“If we were going to have conceded, we would have done it before the strike. We wouldn’t have let it (come) to this,” said Gijanto. “Just because there is a strike, (that) doesn’t suddenly magically create more money.”

Horns of vehicles driving by could be heard from Gijanto’s office Friday afternoon. But he said that the nurses lining the side of High Street would not distract the hospital from its mission to serve its patients.

“Everything’s on schedule and on time. It’s business as usual here today,” he said. “Our focus has been, and will be, the patients, and that has just gone beautifully.”

Nurses were brought in from other Baystate hospitals, allowing Baystate Franklin to keep open all but two of its departments: the intensive care and the mental health units.

Chief Nursing Officer Deborah Palmeri said that all the hospitals in the health system use the same computer system, the same type of equipment and follow similar procedures. She said that nurses on staff Friday had received instructions and background for all of the patients they were to care for.

Security was heightened — with staff at the entrance to each parking lot, joined by five officers from the Greenfield Police Department, who were also on hand to keep the peace.

And inside the hospital, employees waited in the lobby, escorting patients and visitors to where they needed to go. They wore stickers that read “I am Baystate, I’m here for you.” A large poster of an open letter to the community from Gijanto was on display near the entrance.

While nurses outside said that a “corporate giant,” the Baystate Health system, had taken complete control over their community hospital, Gijanto said he couldn’t disagree more.

“I’m here because I enjoy community hospitals. If I wanted to work in a big corporation, I’d be somewhere else,” he said.

“Nobody wants a strike to happen on their watch,” he added. “The fact that in this small community hospital, that it has come to this, is sad. When all is said and done, we’re going to have a lot of work to do with the healing inside the organization.”

On the picket line

Throughout the morning and afternoon, about 40 to 50 nurses lined the edge of High Street at all times. They held up signs, shook cowbells and waved to people driving by. From time to time, they’d break into a chant, drowned out only by the almost constant sound of honking cars.

Congressman John Olver, D-Amherst, stopped by briefly Friday morning to show his support for the union. Representatives from at least two local unions were on hand to let the nurses know that they were not alone in their fight.

Joanne Ostrowski — a Whately nurse who has worked at the hospital since her college graduation in 1971 — said she never thought she would strike.

“The last week or so, the butterflies. You say, ‘Am I really going to do this?’” she said. “But ... it’s my right; I’m in favor of fair practice and labor. Here I am.”

Ostrowski said that when she started working at the hospital, her supervisors all knew her by name. Contract negotiations were settled quickly and peacefully, she said.

But now that Baystate Health is in charge of the hospital, it’s more business-like and managers spend most of their time in Springfield, she said. As a result, negotiations have stalled to a “deadlock.”

Union leaders hope that the strike will provide physical evidence of the nurses’ united front.

“We’re inspired, we’re empowered and we’re more committed than ever,” said co-chair Donna Stern. “We have to believe that Baystate can start conducting itself in a respectful way and meet with its nurses. ... (Hospital officials) still have an opportunity to redeem themselves.”

Debate over hospital policies

Hospital officials declined public comment on the contract negotiations until Aug. 30, when the union voted to authorize a potential future strike.

Since that point, officials have repeatedly stated that many of the nurses’ claims are factually inaccurate. They accused the union of being unwilling to meet them halfway on any of the negotiation issues.

As part of a health system-wide effort to save money, the hospital proposed a change to the overtime policy. Under the new plan, nurses would receive time-and-a-half pay only after working their 41st hour in a week, as opposed to daily overtime accrual ... overtime for any hours over 8 or 12 per day.

Only nine of about 210 registered nurses are scheduled to work more than 40 hours a week. Nurses say they are forced to work beyond their eight or 12 hour shifts because of understaffing issues and holes in the schedule — and believe they should be paid bonus time for the extra labor.

Hospital officials said that this is not fiscally possible. And they denied the claim that there are intentionally scheduled holes — saying this only occurs when nurses take last-minute unplanned absences.

“We are fully hired to our budget to our patient volumes ... the holes are created by events,” said Palmeri. “The driver of the overtime is the sick time, the unplanned absences here and there.”

And while nurses contest that the hospital’s sick attendance policy — which they say hands out penalties beginning with the nurse’s fourth sick day — promotes unsafe atmosphere for patients, officials said that this is not an issue.

“If it’s a contagious illness, we tell them to stay home. It doesn’t count (as one of the unplanned sick days),” said Palmeri. “If you have surgery, it’s not counted because it’s planned.”

The two sides have also sparred over health insurance and the right to negotiate wages.

Chris Shores can be reached at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261 ext. 264

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