Contract dispute pitting nurses against Nashoba Valley Hospital is settled

Steward Health Care agrees to give better wages and pension access to nurses

Nashoba Valley Medical Center nurses got support across the board, as thisJuly photograph taken of residents rallying in suppport
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AYER – More than 100 registered nurses of Nashoba Valley Medical Center have reached an agreement with the hospital’s owner for better contracts.

The proposed settlement follows closely on the heals of an unfair labor practice the nurses filed against the medical center in late August and, more recently, several high-profile politicians going public with their support for the nurses.

The bargaining units for the nurses and Steward Health Care, the Dallas-based for-profit health care corporation that owns the medical center, came to terms early Wednesday morning.

According to David Schildmeier, public communications director for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the nurses earned wage increases, access to a defined pension plan and staffing improvements.

Schildmeier added that once the agreement is ratified, the 125 nurses would drop the charges of unfair labor practice they filed with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board in August.

“It’s a great victory for the nurses who stood up for themselves and others in the community,” Schildmeier said. “It shows the nurses stood strong and worked hard for this settlement.”

Audra Sprague, co-chair of the MNA bargaining unit at the hospital, said “Thank the lord” on Wednesday morning after being in negotiations for 17 hours with Steward the previous evening and reaching the agreement.

“We definitely got good contracts that we’re happy with,” she said. “To be able to offer better pay and benefits and a pension is absolutely huge. We can’t thank the people enough for taking time out of their busy lives to talk to others about this or put signs on their front lawns.”

This agreement comes after four state elected officials signed and submitted a letter on Sept. 13 calling for Steward to drop its threat to close the building unless the nurses sign new contracts.

The bargaining units for the nurses and Steward have been in a stalemate for over a year as the nurses have been trying to renegotiate their contracts since July 2018.

Steward issued an ultimatum on Aug. 26, saying in an email that if the nurses did not accept the corporation’s offer, it would “seriously consider the closure of the hospital.” This caused the nurses to file the charges of unfair labor practice.

“We stand with the nurses and agree that this threat, which was made without providing the required information to justify such a closure, is a violation of federal labor law and an unseemly attempt to force the nurses into accepting an agreement that the nurses believe will negatively impact the quality and safety of care at this facility,” the statement read. “The nurses have provided data that shows that inadequate pay and staffing conditions at the facility have affected NVMC’s ability to recruit and retain the staff needed to deliver the care our community expects and deserves. They have also shown that, due to staffing shortages, the hospital is routinely transferring patients out and turning patients away.”

Co-signers of the statement include Representatives Jennifer Benson and Sheila Harrington along with Senators James Eldridge and Edward Kennedy. The collective wanted Steward to revoke its threat and go back to negotiating “in good faith” for better contracts.

Benson,  a Lunenburg resident who represents the 37th Middlesex District, said Wednesday that she was “really excited” for the nurses to reach the agreement and believed all parties are “happy with the solution.”

“A lot of nurses live in my district, so I care a lot about my constituents being heard,” she said. “I was surprised to hear about the rhetoric of the negotiations. I thought [the letter] would help move things along.”

Eldridge,  of Acton, who represents the Middlesex/Worcester District, credited Benson and the MNA on Tuesday for their “terrific job” drafting the letter last week after the MNA sent the officials the nurses’ unfair labor complaint.

He noted that he and Representative Harrington previously visited the hospital on Jun. 7 to confront NVMC President Korry Dow on the contract negotiations and whether or not the hospital could be closed from the issue, to which the two officials were told that option “wasn’t a consideration.”

“We were shocked to get the email from the MNA about Steward’s threat,” Eldridge said. “As someone who has been a longtime advocate for the nurses, I’ve never seen the head of a company threaten to close a hospital.”

Fran Karaska, another co-chair of the MNA bargaining unit at the hospital, said that the nurses and Steward were back to negotiating as of Monday thanks to the recent letter from the state officials.

“We’re so grateful for their support,” she added. “It shows that they’re standing by the nurses. A lot of those officials got elected by the same people who care about the nurses.”

Representatives of Steward Health Care did not respond to three emails and four telephone calls seeking comment.