After a high-profile one-day strike and a resulting lockout, unionized nurses and Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts are no closer to resolving their contract standoff.
More than a week has gone by since unionized nurses walked out of Berkshire Medical Center for a 24-hour strike. The Massachusetts Nurses Association is calling for what it argues is a “better” nurse-to-patient ratio at BMC to ensure safe patient care.
Nurses were not allowed back on the job until October 8th, when replacement nurses went home. Rallies continued all week.
The two groups have been at a contract impasse for a year. And Berkshire Health Systems CEO David Phelps says he doesn’t see an end in sight.
“I have no prediction as to where and how it ends. It could be a breakthrough in days, months, who knows?” Phelps says. “And I don’t think it’s done, you know, I think it’s the new normal.”
Phelps says a cooling off period before coming back to the bargaining table is typical.
The nurses’ union says a federal mediator will return October 19th.
Meanwhile, Phelps says the hospital will continue to focus on its patients.
“What we have decided to focus on is what’s going to happen inside our walls. Things have been smooth, outpatients have been well-cared for,” Phelps say. “Our schedules are the same schedules we had before.”
Diane Kelly is Berkshire Medical Center’s Chief Operating Officer:
“The number of nurses in the operation room for each procedure is no different today than it was last week,” Kelly says.” Those are all strictly mandated.”
The state Department of Public Health, which conducted patient surveys during the strike, says the transition to replacement nurses at BMC was properly implemented.
The union disagrees. Its members had previously delivered hundreds of unsafe staffing forms – standard reports provided to managers when there are not enough nurses available to provide safe and effective care.
“Nurses need sort of accountability from the hospital that they are going to staff the way they have determined is safe,” Mark Brodeur says.
BMC nurse Mark Brodeur is on the union’s contract bargaining committee.
“Although we are not asking for nearly as much accountability we were when we started,” Brodeur says. “We’re just trying to make sure that there is at least someone on the floor available to help a patient when they are needed. And to make sure that the patient care is safe and that we have the hands available there when we need them.”
The hospital contends the demand is unaffordable and unsustainable. BMC says it made its “best and final” contract offer in May, and the union hasn’t materially changed its position since.
“You go and you tell somebody you need help that something is not safe, to have them completely discount what you are saying – discount your professional license – put patients at risk,” Brodeur says.
BMC says the hospital’s formal quality tracking system has shown no data to support the nurses’ claims. Again, Berkshire Health Systems CEO David Phelps.
“We think the world of our nurses,” Phelps says. “These things happen – there is nothing we can do about that. There isn’t a one of us that isn’t disappointed that we are here – let’s make sure that’s clear. We think it’s wrong for the industry, think it’s bad for the profession actually.”
The Massachusetts Nurses Association is planning more rallies.