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BMC Nurses Reject Hospital's 'Best and Final' Offer
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
10:20PM / Wednesday, May 31, 2017
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The registered nurses at Berkshire Medical Center have rejected the hospital's "best and final offer."
 
The union put the hospital's offer to a member vote on Wednesday and the nurses rejected the offer by an overwhelming margin. Massachusetts Nursing Association spokesman  David Schildmeier said 82 percent of the Berkshire Medical Center chapter voted against the offer.
 
"Tonight an overwhelming majority of MNA members at Berkshire Medical Center voted to reject management's 'best and final' offer by a margin of 82 percent and also with an absolute majority of all eligible union members casting votes to reject. There was record turnout among our members," Schildmeier said Wednesday night.
 
"The vote is a call for management to return to the bargaining table to negotiate in good faith over such important issues as nurse workload, safe staffing and health insurance for health-care workers."
 
BMC spokesman Michael Leary issued a short statement Wednesday night saying the administration was pleased to see the contract proposal go to a vote but wished the outcome was different.
 
"We are naturally disappointed in the outcome of today's ratification vote, but we thank our nurses for taking this to a vote," Leary said Wednesday night.
 
The Massachusetts Nurses Association has been at odds with hospital administration over a new three-year contract. The last contract expired in September and both sides have been attempting to reach agreement on a new one. 
 
However, the two sides hit roadblocks. In particular, the union is looking to put staffing requirements into the contract to ensure "safe staffing." The union says there have been hundreds instances of nurses working without adequate help, and with too many patients. The MNA wanted specific staffing ratios embedded in the contract to ensure shifts are covered properly.
 
The hospital didn't want those ratios in the contract because officials felt it took away flexibility. The hospital said it uses guidelines laid out by the American Nurses Association and has a staffing office constantly reviews the numbers of patients, levels of sickness, and other factors on an hourly basis and makes staffing adjustments as needed. 
 
The hospital opposed the ratio saying it limits the ability to take a "team approach" to staffing by allowing employees from various disciplines to be moved around to ensure sufficient care. 
 
In February, the nurses union held an educational picket outside of the hospital. Hundreds of nurses paced the sidewalks along Wahconah and North Street, chanting, and rallying support.
 
By then, things were already testy between the two sides, with each posing competing statements. The hospital said the union was pushing staffing ratios into contracts across the state and that the issue wasn't in response to local conditions. The nurses claimed the hospital was boasting of paid-for safety awards to justify rejecting the ratios. Both sides refuted the other's claims and both sides said the other wasn't negotiating in good faith.
 
A federal mediator was brought in to assist the negotiations.
 
The two sides went back to the bargaining table and in May the hospital released what it called the  "best and final offer." That was coupled with their own website outlining their viewpoint.
 
A summary of the contract from the hospital calls for continuing its current staffing guidelines with increased participation from nursing staff, a 10 percent pay raise over three years — consisting of general wage increases of 1 percent in year one and two and 2 percent in year three, step increases of 2 percent, and lump sum of 2 percent for those at the top of the scale — retroactive lump sum of raises if the agreement is reached by the end of the month, and increasing the evening and night differential premiums.
 
"We have always offered our nurses a fair and reasonable financial package and have proposed adjustments this year to keep it so. However, we have now concluded that we cannot reach that appropriate result by continuing the pattern of session after session with the MNA without meaningful progress. This is especially so considering the costs, distraction, and discord generated by these time consuming and often unproductive sessions," reads a letter the hospital released in May.
 
"At this point, we believe we have exhausted discussion on all proposals from both sides of the table. Accordingly, we have given the MNA our best and final offer to settle the contract."
 
The union said that "threw a wrench" into negotiations. That offer did not include staffing changes and MNA spokesman Joe Markman said at the time, "staffing is still their No. 1 issue and it needs to be addressed."
 
A few days after the hospital issued its offer, the union countered with a proposal. That proposal created more registered nursing positions and had restrictions on how often the nurses rotated shifts. The nurses also delivered a petition to CEO David Phelps calling for a new agreement.
 
On May 18, the MNA said the administration had not agreed to return to the table to discuss the union's proposal.
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