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January 3, 2022

Striking Saint Vincent nurses ratify contract, end 301-day strike

Photo | Grant Welker Saint Vincent Hospital nurses picketing outside the Worcester hospital in the early days of the 300-day strike, which ended in January 2022.

Union nurses who have been on strike since March 8 voted on Monday night to ratify a new contract with Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, ending an historic 301-day strike initially hinging on staffing ratios.

Voting was held at the Teamster Local 170 Meeting Hall in Worcester, and ran from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. There were 502 ballots cast throughout the day, the MNA said during a Monday night press conference, including 487 in favor, nine opposed, three blank, and three contested.

The impending agreement was first announced on Dec. 17. It was the result of two weeks of discussions with federal mediators, culminating in an in-person session mediated by U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, former mayor of Boston.

"We are pleased that our nurses decided to bring the strike to an end by voting to ratify this contract," Saint Vincent said in a Monday night statement. "We are ready to welcome back every nurse who chooses to return to Saint Vincent, and we have plans in place to make that process as smooth as possible."

Under the agreement, Saint Vincent will have 30 days to recall all striking nurses back to work, according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association. The hospital said it expects all returning nurses to be back to work by Jan. 22.

“I have nothing but pride and appreciation for all our 700 nurses who sacrificed so much for so long for their patients and this community,” said Marlena Pellegrino, a Saint Vincent nurse and co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit of the MNA, in a statement. “There are so many of our members who won’t be impacted by this agreement who stood out there with us every day for their fellow nurses, but more importantly for our patients and for the city we so proudly serve.”

The strike, itself, was in large part related to staffing ratios for nurses and patients. The final sticking point related to whether or not Saint Vincent, which is owned by Texas-based Tenet Healthcare Corp., would allow striking nurses to return to their previous positions. Under the new agreement, striking nurses will be able to do so, while the replacement nurses hired in their absence will stay in their positions as well.

Other points of the contract include provisions for staffing ratios, workplace safety, and wage increases.

Ratios included in the agreement include a limit of four patient-assignments to nurses in the hospital’s cardiac post-surgical unit, a mix of four and five-patient assignment limits on the other seven medical surgical and telemetry floors and a five-patient assignment limit to nurses in the behavioral health unit, per details shared by the MNA.

Additionally, resource nurses will not be given assignments in the intensive care unit, progressive care unit, cardiac step down, emergency department, post-anesthesia care unit, operating room, endoscopy and maternity unit. There will be a zero-two patient limit for outpatient oncology and a reduced assignment during day and evening shifts on the behavioral health unit.

Other key provisions highlighted by the MNA include requiring the hospital to operate a metal detector in the emergency department, as well police detail during night shifts during the week, and all shifts on weekends in holidays, citing the level of violence nurses experience on the job. The contract includes provisions for assault pay for nurses who are assaulted by either a patient or visitor.

Separately, the union successfully negotiated enhanced health insurance benefits for part-time nurses who work 24 or more hours a week, as well as a series of wage increases over the lifespan of the agreement, varying on employee salary and position.

The strike lasted 285 days before the initial tentative agreement was announced in December, and ran through much of the second year of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The MNA said it was the longest-running nurses strike in the state's history. Its impact drew the attention of officials and news coverage at the local, state, and national levels. It took a toll on healthcare options in Central Massachusetts region.

In July, Saint Vincent said it was closing 100 hospital beds because of the strike, including 80 staffed inpatient beds, eight procedural rooms, and closing select outpatient services. The closures prompted pressure from state officials in November, including the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and Gov. Charlie Baker. UMass Memorial Medical Center, which operates the other major hospitals in Worcester, said multiple times since July it was running out of beds for coronavirus patients, citing the Saint Vincent strike as one of the factors.

Saint Vincent said on Monday it was eager to reopen temporarily closed services.

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