This June, the nurses of St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, MA entered their third month of striking, what the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) is calling “one of the longest nurses strikes nationally in over a decade.” By the MNA’s own estimates the strike has cost Tenet Healthcare, the Dallas based owner of the hospital, at least $67 million by early June. The same month, negotiations between Tenet and the 700+ nurses, represented by the MNA, broke down. In the meantime, Tenet has indicated that it will move to permanently replace the striking nurses, who have refused to compromise on the core issue of staffing levels. 

Staffing levels at hospitals in Massachusetts has been a hot-button issue in the Commonwealth for several years. In 2018, Massachusetts voters considered a ballot initiative, backed by the MNA, among other organizations, which would have placed limits on the number of patients that can be assigned to registered nurses working at hospitals, effectively requiring hospitals to maintain a specific number of nurses better proportional to the number of patients they serve. Advocates of the proposal argued that the mandate was needed to better guarantee the health and safety of patients by guaranteeing that hospitals have enough nurses to the needs of patients, as well as making sure that nurses themselves are not being dangerously overworked. Ultimately, the initiative was founded on the concern that hospitals might be cutting corners for the sake of increased profits, at the expense of patients, nurses, and communities. Unfortunately, the initiative failed by a significant margin. 

However, the issue has gained renewed attention in the wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic, which has produced great sympathy for nurses and other health workers on the “frontlines” of the epidemic, whose contact with patients has put them at increased risk of contracting the novel coronavirus. Tenet’s intimations that it would seek to replace the nurses on strike incurred outrage from community groups and other organizations. This development also prompted Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, joined by Representatives James McGovern (MA-02) and Lori Trahan (MA-03) and cosigned by another 28 state and local elected officials to write a letter condemning the decision, as well as encouraging Tenet to renew talks and concede the importance of addressing staffing levels. 

According to a press release from the MNA, “In the last year alone, nurses have filed more than 600 official “unsafe staffing” reports (more than 110 such reports have been filed since January 1, 2021) in which nurses informed management in real time that patient care conditions jeopardized the safety of their patients. The nurses also report their patients in Worcester have experienced an increase in patient falls, an increase in patients suffering from preventable bed sores, potentially dangerous delays in patients receiving needed medications and other treatments – all due to lack of appropriate staffing, excessive patient assignments, and cuts to valuable support staff.”

By Ian Macleod

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