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After historic nurses' strike, a new dispute roils Saint Vincent Hospital02:23
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Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

At the end of a long and bitter contract negotiation for unionized nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester last year, there was one last sticking point: Nurses wanted their old jobs back.

When they finally secured a promise to return to the positions and hours they previously worked, they ended their nine-month strike and went back to work.

But now, the Massachusetts Nurses Association says, the hospital is changing schedules and forcing nurses to work longer shifts. Most Saint Vincent nurses had worked eight-hour shifts; now they must work 12 hours.

Hospital leaders say the new schedule is in line with industry standards and attractive to many nurses. But the union says the change is driving away experienced nurses.

Marie Ritacco, a Saint Vincent nurse and vice president of the union, said not all nurses can work longer hours. Some have young children or older parents to look after. For others, the longer work days may pose a physical hardship.

“We've already seen a number of nurses leave the bedside... And sadly, I can say we expect to see more.”

Marie Ritacco, Mass. Nurses Assocation

“We see this as very short-sighted,” she said. “We've already seen a number of nurses leave the bedside... And sadly, I can say we expect to see more.”

This latest dispute comes more than two years into a pandemic that has exhausted nurses and triggered staffing shortages at many hospitals. Saint Vincent employs about 500 nurses and is trying to hire about 100 more.

The hospital is still not as busy as it was before the strike. About 45 medical-surgical beds remain closed because patient numbers have dropped; it’s unclear if they will reopen. The hospital — part of Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare — is operating about 250 beds.

After the strike ended and nurses started returning to work, Saint Vincent chief executive Carolyn Jackson supported an effort to decertify the union and expel it from the hospital. That effort failed in February when nurses voted overwhelmingly to keep the union.

But the experience appears to have soured the relationship between hospital management and the union just when nurses were hoping to move on from the strike. The schedule change is only making it harder to heal, Ritacco said.

“It feels like it's doubling down on their efforts to crush the union,” said Steve Striffler, director of the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “And it's really unprecedented, especially a time when you would think the company would try to mend the fences.”

Union officials want the hospital to negotiate work hours. But Jackson said hospital leaders have gone “over and above” their obligation to discuss changes with the union.

"People are working well together, and getting along — for the most part."

Carolyn Jackson, Saint Vincent Hospital

The hospital tried to accommodate a handful of nurses who can’t work the new hours, Jackson said. But she noted 12-hour shifts are common across the hospital industry, and many nurses prefer them.

“It makes it easier to hire, especially nurses coming out of school, which is where a lot of hospitals are going for new hires these days,” she said.

Nurses who work 12-hour shifts typically work two or three days a week. Jackson said it’s too complicated to schedule a mix of eight-hour and 12-hour shifts, as the union requested.

Nurses went on strike in March 2021 and stopped picketing in December after reaching agreement with the hospital on staffing levels and other issues. They started returning to their jobs earlier this year, working alongside the replacement workers who filled in during the strike.

After the tension and bitterness of the past year, Jackson said the relationship between the hospital and the nurses' union is improving.

“It is a much less tense environment,” she said. “People are working well together, and getting along — for the most part — and it has been a smoother transition back than we anticipated.”

This segment aired on May 19, 2022.

Related:

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey Twitter Senior Health Reporter
Priyanka Dayal McCluskey is a senior health reporter for WBUR.

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