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800 Nurses At St. Vincent Hospital In Worcester Strike Over Staffing Levels

Nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester went on strike Monday in response to what they describe as the failure of hospital leadership to increase staffing levels and thereby ensure patient safety.

Nurse staffing levels are the central sticking point in contract negotiations that began between the nurses and the hospital's owners, Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare, in the fall of 2019.

The nurses and the union that represents them, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, say their staffing level has been lower than industry standards for too long, and it's putting patients in danger. According to the nurses, most of them take care of five patients, as opposed to the industry standard of four patients per nurse.

"We have seen an increase in falls, an increase in patients not getting their pain medication on time, an increase of patients not being able to be turned — which leads to bed sores; [we've seen an increase in] urinary tract infections," said registered nurse Marlena Pellegrino, who's worked at St. Vincent Hospital for 34 years and is co-chair of the bargaining unit. "We can't sit and provide emotional care and give any education to patients."

Striking was an agonizing move, especially in a pandemic, nurses on the picket line said.

"It's a tough decision, especially the nurses that just had to walk out on their patients," said registered nurse Chris Louissaint. "No one wanted to strike; it's something that we had to do to take a stand, to show that the conditions inside aren't safe for patients."

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Carol Burke, a nurse at St. Vincent's for 13 years, said she wouldn't go to the hospital as a patient if she needed care, because she would consider it too risky.

"Tenet just wants [to make] money, and we just want to take care of our patients safely," Burke said. "And it just gets worse every day."

The nurses' union said around the same time members voted to authorize the strike, Tenet announced a fourth-quarter profit for FY2020 of $414 million. But that compares to a fourth-quarter net loss of $3 million the year before. The company announced it was putting the recent profit toward retiring $478 million in debt.

Tenet did not respond to a request for comment.

St. Vincent Hospital CEO Carolyn Jackson said the strike was ill-timed.

"It is definitely disappointing that our [union] nurses decided to go on strike this morning in the midst of a global pandemic," Jackson said. "However, I am pleased to say that we have a full house of temporary replacement nurses who have come to us from all across  the country who are already providing excellent quality care."

She added that some union nurses crossed the picket line, as well.

Jackson said hospital management hopes the nurses will accept the contract offer on the table or come back with a "reasonable" proposal.

In a statement issued Sunday, the hospital said it had recently presented its best proposal in ten years — one that comprehensively addresses wages and benefits, as well as increasing staffing to arrive at a 1:4 nurse-patient ratio in two additional units (for a total of three units with that ratio.) The nurses want such a staffing level in all 12 units.

There are no negotiation sessions planned.

St. Vincent nurses last went on strike against Tenet in 2000. That 49-day work stoppage led to their first union contract.

This article was originally published on March 08, 2021.

Lynn Jolicoeur Twitter Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.

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