AYER -- Pedestrians in Ayer walking along Main Street Wednesday afternoon were treated to some loud chanting coming from the front of Lucias Tavola restaurant:
"Our community, our hospital! ... Steward, do what's right!"
The chant came from registered nurses who work at Nashoba Valley Medical Center, which is owned and operated by Steward Health Care System. The nurses gathered at this rally to alert the public of their wage and benefit troubles at the hospital.
Co-organized by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the rally featured nurses at NVMC and members of the MNA holding signs that read, "United For Quality Patient Care," and "Our Community Deserves the Best from Steward NVMC.
The MNA cited a recent analysis detailing that nurses who work at NVMC earn up to 20 percent less than nurses in some of the 22 competing hospitals in the area. This causes a large amount of turnover in the hospital's registered nursing staff that impact multiple departments, including the Intensive Care Unit and the Geriatric Psychiatric Unit.
NVMC was acquired by Steward Health Care in May 2011. The organization, originally backed by the New York private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, owns nine other hospitals in Massachusetts including St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Brighton and New England Sinai Hospital in Stoughton. Steward also owns other hospitals in Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Texas.
When asked for comment on the rally, NVMC Spokesperson Maureen Amaral issued a statement via email Wednesday night.
"We take pride in the collaborative work we have done with multiple unions to continue improving care and jobs within the facility. We look forward to continuing scheduled negotiations with our valued nursing team members, including during the negotiation dates currently scheduled with the mutual goal of achieving a successful collective bargaining agreement."
Fran Karaska is a registered nurse in NVMC's recovery room and has worked at the hospital for 30 years, also serving as the co-chair of the MNA's bargaining unit at the hospital. She said that the nurses' contracts were up for re-negotiation in December so she and other nurses contacted officials at Steward back in July to discuss improvements. Karaska said that Steward only started responding to the nurses requests in December and issues including wages, benefits and staffing haven't been addressed by the company's administrators in the 11 bargaining sessions held over the last three months. The 12th session is set to be held tomorrow.
"This is to bring attention to the fact that we're not being treated fairly by management," Karaska said. "More importantly, it's about our patients. We can't keep nurses at the hospital if they leave for another place."
Audra Sprague, another registered nurse and fellow co-chair of the MNA's bargaining unit, referred to Steward's delay of negotiation as "passive disrespect" to the nursing staff. Sprague said she finds the staff turnover a major concern given how other registered nurses could go to another hospital that offers higher wages and better benefits, leaving the patients at NVMC short on caregivers to help them. She added that the MNA has been very supportive, reaching out to selectmen in Ayer and neighboring towns in an effort to spread awareness of the nurses' struggles.
"I think we've always been very supported by the community," Sprague said. "What keeps us here are the people who work and the people in Nashoba. They care about what we do."
Monica Gill, another nurse at NVMC, further stressed the trouble with frequent staff turnover at the hospital. She noted how when per diem nurses at the hospital do not return for more work, there's no back-up staff to fill shifts if nurses are sick.
"There's no safety net," Gill said. "We can only take care of so many people at a time and they just keep coming. You're trying to do the work of two to three people with no breaks and no one to cover breaks."
The nurses' struggles have not gone unnoticed and reached ears outside of Ayer. Sen. James Eldridge of the Middlesex and Worcester district spoke at the rally in support of the nurses and plans to send a letter to the new CEO of the hospital to schedule a meeting and further push negotiations.
"I am so appreciative of the care that you take of so many of my constituents," Eldridge said to the attendees at the rally. "One of the conversations that we need to have more and more of is that the way we show true appreciation for all nurses is to make sure you're getting fair wages and great benefits. That's why I want to stand with you."