AYER -- Negotiations between officials at Steward Health Care System and the registered nurses employed at the Steward-owned Nashoba Valley Medical Center continue to sour as the nurses have allowed their representatives to put a strike on the table.
According to the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the nurses cast votes earlier this week authorizing their local union leaders to call a one-day strike. The MNA said this strike will take place if Steward doesn't address the nurses concerns regarding their pay, benefits and staffing.
"Our hospital has an excellent reputation in the community and it is staffed with great, dedicated caregivers," Fran Karaska, co-chair of the MNA bargaining unit at NVMC said in a press release. "But the hospital's inability to recruit and retain registered nurses, due to lack of competitive wages, will harm both the hospital and community in the long term."
The nurses have been trying to negotiate with Steward management since July 2018l the contract ended in December.
MNA said that the nurses have had 13 negotiation sessions since December 2018 and hospital management has "actively engaged in discussions about economics" for only one of the sessions. The MNA said hospital management has "completely rejected" proposals offered by the nurses.
Another negotiation session is scheduled for next week. Representatives for NVMC and Steward did not return requests for comment.
David Schildmeier, director of MNA's public communications, said on Thursday that the nurses are looking for wage increases and benefits on par with other hospitals, a pension plan, better staffing, language-setting standards and increased vacation time. Schildmeier added that the MNA requested a federal moderator come in to help move negotiations along.
Steward Health Care acquired NVMC back in May 2011, adding to the organization's collection of hospitals it owns across the state and the country. Originally backed by the New York private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, Steward owns hospitals in Arizona, Utah, Louisiana and Ohio.
The MNA said that nursing staff turnover at NVMC is more than 200 percent of the annual northeast hospital average of 16.5 percent. It further noted how the hospital's Intensive Care Unit only had one registered nurse on staff for 12 percent of the time in 2018 and 35 percent of the time so far in 2019. Because of this, ICU patients are either transferred to non-ICU floors without specialized nursing care or transferred to other Steward hospitals entirely. Other times, nurses' schedules are unorganized and open shifts are needed to be filled.
The MNA also said nurses at NVMC earn 25 percent less than nurses at other local hospitals. Despite the hospital successfully applying to have its reimbursement-rate designation changed from Central Massachusetts to Boston last year, the nurses at the hospital have seen no increase to their wages.
"We have tried addressing these issues at the bargaining table," Audra Sprague, another co-chair of the MNA's bargaining unit, also said in a press release. "But after countless hours of sitting with management, it has become apparent our concerns are not being taken seriously. For the health and safety of our patients, and for the future of our hospital, we needed to take this strike authorization vote."
Nurses at NVMC held a public rally on Main Street in Ayer in March. The MNA said that the hospital will have 10 days to offer better terms to the nurses if the nurses issues an official notice of strike.