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Telegram and Gazette, 10/14/10

By Martin Luttrell
Telegram & Gazette
October 14, 2010

UMMC nurses rally against pay cuts, unit's closing

WORCESTER —  Hundreds of nurses from the UMass Memorial Medical Center system staged a boisterous rally and demonstration in front of the Belmont Street Memorial campus yesterday to protest what they contend are unsafe staffing levels, hospital demands for pay and benefit cuts and the planned closing of a medical-surgical unit at Memorial.

The nurses, who were joined by others from across Massachusetts and other states who were in the city attending a convention at the DCU Center, want pay parity with nurses at the University campus, and said the staffing levels the hospital wants would prevent them from delivering quality care.

Negotiations between the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the hospital will resume on Oct. 22, said Lisa Cargill, a registered nurse who is co-chairwoman of the bargaining unit. Negotiations, which have been ongoing for more than a year, have had a federal mediator for the last several sessions.

Ms. Cargill said nurses are upset over the hospital's plan to close the West 2 inpatient floor, eliminating 28 beds at a time when so-called “Code Help” calls have been implemented because there are not enough beds available for patients.

“My mother was in a car accident and asked to come here, because I work here,” Ms. Cargill said. “They put her in a hallway because there was no place to put her.”

In a prepared statement, UMass Memorial Medical Center spokesman Rob Brogna said the medical center is working diligently to reach a fair and equitable contract.

“UMass Memorial is making thoughtful and prudent changes to our staffing and services,” the statement said in part. “We are forced to do this in response to pressures all hospitals are facing as a result of health care reform legislation and declining inpatient volumes, not to mention the reality of our current economy that all of our staff, patients and their families are facing.”

The nurses union contends that the UMass hospital system has garnered $90 million in profits over the last 15 months, and hired consultants to implement so-called “lean production” methods. Some likened the efficiency measures to forcing manufacturing practices onto patient care.

“We're not factory workers,” said Colleen Wolfe, an invasive radiology nurse.

“When you have an accident at a factory, you do a recall,” Ms. Cargill added. “When you have an accident at a hospital, you have a funeral.”

The UMass Memorial statement indicated that most non-union staff will not receive a cost of living increase, while the company is offering many of its nurses raises of 12 percent over two years. Many nurses earn more than $100,000 a year, the statement said.

“Additionally, our Home Health nurses will be the region's highest paid for this type of work — almost 40 percent more,” the UMass statement said. “We feel that the salary increase MNA members are requesting is excessive and out-of-touch with the weak economy, high unemployment rates, and the new fiscal realities of the health care industry.”

Yesterday's rally came a day after UMass Memorial Health Care announced it would cut about $27 million off its $2.5 billion budget by laying off 130 to 140 workers, eliminating about 120 unfilled jobs and reducing hours for the equivalent of about 100 full-time workers.

Nurses said the hospital wants to reduce staffing to levels that would be unsafe. The union wants the contract to specify no more than four patients per nurse, and no more than two per nurse in the intensive care unit.

Lynne Starbard, co-chair of the bargaining unit, said the West 2 unit is slated to close on Oct. 23, at the onset of flu season. “There aren't enough beds for patients now,” she said.

Wendy McGill, a member of the MNA who negotiates as a member of the bargaining team, said the contract talks are close on the issue of wage parity with those at the University, but the bigger battle is maintaining health benefits, which are currently split, 80/20, with UMass paying 80 percent of health benefits.

Management wants to change the ratio to 75/25 for full-time nurses, and 70/30 for part-timers, she said. But a proposed 10 percent cut in pay for home health and hospice nurses will be a major obstacle, she said.

“A couple of years ago the hospital was projecting a loss of millions of dollars,” she said. “Now, all of a sudden, there's a $90 million surplus.”

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