EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 10, 2012

Nurses' union, Steward Health Care trade barbs

First rally of its kind at Holy Family

By Bill Kirk
bkirk@eagletribune.com

---- — METHUEN — Nurses at Holy Family Hospital held a demonstration last night to protest what they say are cuts to staffing that are endangering patient safety.

But a spokesman for Steward Health Care, which owns the hospital, said the protest had nothing to do with patient safety, and everything to do with outrageously high wage increase requests.

“Their claim is outrageous,” said Christopher Murphy, director of media relations for Steward, which owns Holy Family and nearly a dozen other hospitals across the state. “Staffing levels at the hospital haven’t changed in years. Hospitals have to report staffing to the state. The allegation is preposterous when you can go to the state (Department of Public Health) and learn the facts.”

He added that the nurses, in recent contract negotiations, requested a 27 percent increase in compensation, down from a 59 percent request earlier in the year.

“Massachusetts has a mandated cap on health care cost increases of 3.6 percent,” he said. “With those kinds of numbers, where should we make the cuts? Who should we eliminate? What services should we cut?”

The Massachusetts Nurses Association sent out a press release yesterday morning saying that the vigil was being held across from the main entrance to the hospital from 6-8 p.m. A union spokesman said he expected about 100 people to attend.

The head of the nurses’ union at the hospital, Gail Burke, 55, of Methuen, said the protest was held because “we saw changes going on and the nurses weren’t part of the decision making. We’ve been in negotiations since last year, and things were going smoothly until we got to the money issue. Everything in the contract, we met and decided on, now that it’s come to salaries and earned time and holidays and pension, now they seem to be dragging their feet.”

After the hospital was purchased from the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston by a private equity firm in 2010, nurses voted in 2011 to join the Massachusetts Nurses Association. Negotiations for a first-ever contract have been going on since last December. The action last night was held for a variety of reasons having to do with the negotiations not just at Holy Family but at Steward Health Care’s other hospitals throughout the state, according to David Schildmeier, spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

This is the first rally of its kind at any of the 11 hospitals owned by Steward Health Care. The union represents nearly 3,000 nurses at Steward hospitals.

Burke said nurses at Holy Family make less than nurses at other hospitals in the area as well as other hospitals within the Steward chain.

“We are at the bottom of the barrel and we were looking to be current with (other hospitals),” she said. “It’s a lack of respect.”

She said nurses at Holy Family make as much as $5 an hour less on average than nurses at other, comparable hospitals.

She said staffing has also been “cut to a minimum” and that nurses are being asked to take days off when there aren’t as many patients in the hospital.

“What used to be a rare occasion has become an everyday issue,” she said. “Staff has been cut to the minimum, so when an emergency happens, they scramble to get people in to help.”

Murphy said the allegations are typical of the statewide nurses’ union.