About 700 nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, went on strike Monday, protesting what they call dangerous conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The strike comes after negotiations between the Massachusetts Nurses Association and Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare, which owns the hospital, broke down.
On Monday morning, hundreds could be seen picketing in front of the hospital. The striking nurses plan to picket every day from 6 a.m. until midnight until a settlement is reached, according to the MNA.
"We take pride in the care that we deliver, so if we're not able to deliver the quality of care that we're accustomed to, we have a problem with that," said maternity ward nurse Christine Donohue.
Nurses from units across the hospital say they're caring for too many patients at one time.
"There's a lot of unsafe conditions in the ER right now," said Heather Arnold, an emergency room nurse. "It's dangerous, very dangerous."
Union leaders say staffing issues have led to an increase in patient falls, bed sores and dangerous delays in patients receiving medications.
"Even feeding patients on time, even simple things as proper hygiene, we are staffed to bare bones minimum," said nurse Marlena Pellegrino, who's on the union negotiating team.
In a letter to the union president, St. Vincent Hospital CEO Carolyn Jackson called on union members to stop using "bullying and intimidation" tactics against their colleagues. Jackson cited threats of backlash against nurses who cross the picket line.
The hospital has hired hundreds of temporary nurses from around the country.
"We are very disappointed that our nurses chose to walk out and go on strike in the midst of a global pandemic," said Jackson, who disputes the union's claims of poor patient care and inadequate staffing. "We staff our med surge floors at a range of one nurse to four patients to one nurse to five patients, which is in line with UMass and other hospitals across the state."
Negotiations have gone on for about a year.
During a rally on Sunday, the nurses claimed that working conditions are putting patients at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic, including high patient-to-nurse ratios, a lack of support staff and high turnover.
They are demanding higher wages and better benefits for part-time workers.
"If the [Operating Room] is not busy they will force nurses in same-day surgery to go home rather than to go out to the floors or the emergency room or the [intensive care unit] and help nurses that are inundated with patients," striking nurse Marie Ritacco said Monday.
Ritacco has been at St. Vincent for 38 years and walked the picket line 21 years ago for a strike that lasted 49 days. She’s worried this one could go that long.
"Of course it concerns me, but we are going to be out here until they come to the table and talk about staffing, and we will not be returning until we are assured that we will have much safer staffing at the bedside," she said.
The hospital presented the "best proposal in ten years," according to a spokesperson, which included pay increases as high as 36% for some nurses, and increases to differentials, benefits improvements of up to $4,600 for part time nurses in out of pocket premium costs, enhanced ER security and staffing.
The nurses' union has made it clear for weeks that they planned to strike on Monday unless management agreed to boost staffing to better protect patients during and after the coronavirus pandemic.
Tenet and St. Vincent management "refuse to heed nurses" call to increase staffing levels to better protect their patients during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the union said in a statement.