10-Month Nursing Strike Ends Amid Omicron Surge

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After nearly 10 months, a record-long strike in Massachusetts has come to an end, paving the way for hundreds of nurses to return to Tenet Healthcare’s Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester.

The end of the strike is important in more ways than one. The nurses — members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) — were successful in securing what they viewed as a critical part of their contract. Beginning later this month, they will be able to return to their exact same positions. And in doing so, the nurses will be able to help their hospital address the latest COVID-19 surge spurred by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

“Our patients at Saint Vincent Hospital, they need us,” Marlena Pellegrino, RN, a longtime nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the nurses’ local bargaining unit with the MNA, told MedPage Today.

The strike started in March 2021, after nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital alleged unsafe staffing practices. In August, the MNA said that the nurses agreed to staffing improvements negotiated during the strike and were ready to return to work to provide care. However, an end to the strike was scuttled over a return-to-work agreement put forth by the hospital.

According to the agreement, more than 100 of the nurses on strike may not have been able to return to the exact same positions they left, a move that the MNA called retaliatory in nature at the time.

However, on Monday, things changed.

The MNA announced that evening that Saint Vincent Hospital nurses had cast an overwhelming vote to ratify a new contract. The final tally was 487-9 in favor of ratification, the MNA said. In all, 502 ballots were cast, with three ballots left blank and three contested ballots.

Though the strike started due to patient safety, it merged into standing up for the rights of nurses and workers in other sectors as well. The MNA noted that the final component of the agreement reached was a provision that guarantees all nurses who went on strike the right to return to work in the same position, hours, and shift they had previously worked, while providing a process for the parties to follow in recalling the nurses back to work.

“We were out there for patient safety,” Pellegrino said. “That’s how our strike started.”

Now, she views it even more as a “testament to the strength of a relatively small group of nurses,” she said. If nurses or other workers are standing up for what they believe in — in this case, it was the rights of patients — than they “should always have that right without fear of retaliation.”

“You should never let your voice be diminished,” Pellegrino said.

She and her colleagues, including Marie Ritacco, RN, a member of the nurses negotiating committee and vice president of the MNA, and Dominique Muldoon, RN, another longtime nurse at Saint Vincent Hospital and co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit, have held tight to one phrase: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Ritacco told MedPage Today that, during the strike, nurses continued working on behalf of patients, be it in other hospitals, COVID-19 vaccination and testing clinics, or additional settings. Some have also pursued employment opportunities in retail or in restaurants to keep food on the table. Now, she said that she believes most are relieved and excited to return to their home hospital.

Of the strike, and of the initial possibility that some nurses wouldn’t be able to return to their same positions, Muldoon told MedPage Today that, “This was totally unprecedented. It was a core issue. We couldn’t get an agreement without that.”

But, once that was secured, “everything kind of clicked into place like a puzzle.”

Other components of the contract include improvements in staffing on a number of units sought by the nurses, such as enforceable staffing grids, the MNA said in its announcement. For instance, some of the provisions specify a limit of four-patient assignments on the hospital’s cardiac post-surgical unit, as well as a mix of four- and five- patient assignments on the seven other medical surgical and telemetry floors.

Saint Vincent Hospital has said during the strike that it takes concerns regarding nurse staffing seriously, and that it has consistently staffed within guidelines and comparably with other hospitals nearby.

Carolyn Jackson, CEO of Saint Vincent Hospital, told MedPage Today that the hospital and the nurses had been making progress in the lead-up to Monday’s vote. She also noted, as did the MNA, the assistance of U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh in mediating an in-person session.

When asked about the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and its impact on the end of the strike, Jackson said that, “It definitely played a part.”

“Omicron is certainly surging to a point that we haven’t seen at this point in the pandemic,” Jackson said. “The time was right to bring this to a close.”

In the meantime, the hospital has most recently relied on about 200 travel nurses, she said. On Jan. 8, the hospital will begin the process of recalling more than 600 nurses who have been on strike. Nurses will be notified via FedEx and phone calls of the process, including the requirement to complete a reorientation as soon as Jan. 13 and no later than Jan. 22.

Once nurses have completed the reorientation, they can return to work, Jackson said.

Of more than 100 beds that were previously closed due to the strike, Jackson said that the hospital has recently reopened 12 behavioral health beds. The remaining closures will be re-evaluated as it becomes clear how many of the nurses who have been on strike plan to return, she said.

As for the ongoing pandemic and the Omicron surge, Jackson said, “For us to best fight it, we need our full team, and we need our full team working collaboratively together.”

Pellegrino noted that, looking back on the strike, she was amazed to see the dedication of young nurses in their 20s — some who had been on the job mere weeks — as well as older nurses on the brink of or past their retirement. She said that she views the commitment to achieving what is in the new contract as a success and legacy for the bargaining unit going forward.

“That’s how you make an impact on patient lives,” Pellegrino said.

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    Jennifer Henderson joined MedPage Today as an enterprise and investigative writer in Jan. 2021. She has covered the healthcare industry in NYC, life sciences and the business of law, among other areas.

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