June 15, 2015

Medical Center nurses vote to approve contracts

More than 2,200 unionized nurses at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester have voted to ratify one-year contracts after negotiations that the union called "relatively smooth."

The union, the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), announced the votes Monday. It said the approval of the contracts for the 2,214 member nurses at the University and Memorial campuses - each of which has a separate bargaining unit - came after "just a handful" of negotiating sessions held over the last two months. That comes in stark contrast to contract negotiations two years ago, when nurses had voted to stage a one-day strike amid contentious talks between labor and management. Just before the planned strike, the hospitals' management and the union agreed to a contract.

This latest settlement followed two years of contentious talks between the nurses and the medical center's administration. The union said staffing commitments promised in the 2013 settlement had not been met, while staffing levels and services were cut.

"However, in the last few months, (UMass Memorial Health Care CEO) Erik Dickson has instituted a new senior leadership team with a commitment to restoring a positive relationship with the nurses and to making strong commitments to improve patient care conditions at the facility," the statement said. "The new contract is an important step in that process."

Bart Metzger, chief human resources officer for UMass Memorial Health Care (UMMHC), said management has been pursuing strategies that empower front-line caregivers, such as nurses, to make key decisions in caring for patients. That also means pursuing a "fully collaborative" approach with the system's unions.

That's something that may surprise those who are familiar with the strained relations of the past few years.

"There are a number of folks who couldn't imagine the parties having a different kind of conversation," Metzger said. The most important part of this, from management's perspective, he added, is that "both parties" are signaling a different employee relations "paradigm."

The one-year contract, rather than a traditional three-year deal, gives both sides time to work together amid the system's financial challenges. Following an operating loss in its 2013 fiscal year, UMMHC has been rebounding financially. Earlier this month, Moody's Investors Service upgraded its debt outlook for the organization from negative to positive, citing a financial upturn.

'Respectful relationship' clause

The contracts mandate – in what the MNA calls a "respectful relationship" provision - that the two sides sit down over the coming year to address outstanding grievances and proactively address ongoing concerns related to staffing and workplace issues.

Highlights of the new agreement also include:

  • An across-the-board salary increase of 1 percent, with no reduction in benefits with the same contract scales for both campuses.
  • A commitment to add nurses to the STAT team on both campuses. The STAT team consists of experienced nurses who support nurses on the various floors by providing care and support for critically ill patients in the emergency department, and providing IV therapy to complex patients to help compensate for the loss of a dedicated IV therapy team.
  • A commitment by the hospital to fill all vacant nursing positions within 90 days, which will help meet the commitment in the contract to place safe limits on nurses' patient assignments.
  • The mutual launching of a process to address staffing issues and develop improved care processes in the emergency departments at both sites.
  • A commitment by the MNA to work with management and the union representing the support staff at the hospital to develop a plan that would improve all levels of care delivery. "Nurses have been very concerned about the negative impact on patient care caused by severe cuts to valuable support staff over the last two years," the MNA's statement read.

The contract does not impact nursing staffs at UMass Memorial Health Care's three other acute-care hospitals: HealthAlliance in Leominster, as well as Marlborough and Clinton hospitals. Nurses at HealthAlliance are scheduled to take a one-day strike vote June 24 to push for what the MNA calls "safe care" for patients amid cuts to staffing and services, the union said.

Nurses and management at HealthAlliance have been locked in sometimes-contentious contracts talks over the last year. Last November, they staged a two-hour informational picket to protest proposed staffing cuts. Earlier last year, HealthAlliance announced plans to cut staff in response to declining patient volumes.

"One can only hope this new philosophy (by UMass Memorial management) is carried throughout the entire system, and soon," said Julie Pinkham, the MNA's executive director. "At the end of the day, it is what is needed and what is best for the patients under the care of the UMass system."

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