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BMC Nursing Unit Offers Compromise on Biggest Contract Hurdles
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
07:59PM / Thursday, May 10, 2018
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Barb Connor said the bargaining committee agreed to accept the health insurance plan. But nurses still want stronger staffing language.


The nurses held a rally in front of the hospital on Thursday. 

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The registered nurses at Berkshire Medical Center have completed a review of the hospital's proposed changes to health insurance and said they can live with it.

But, they say there is still work to be done on the staffing issue.

The local Massachusetts Nurses Association chapter and the hospital have been in contract negotiations for a year and a half. The last contract expired in September 2016 and negotiations have been ongoing since. Last October, the nurses held a one-day strike that was followed by a one-day lockout.
 
Early this year, the nurses voted on a second strike but called it off after a late-night negotiation session showed progress. At that February meeting, BMC officials put forth a more aggressive offer in hopes to reach a consensus. The hospital also provided data on its health insurance proposal that the union had been seeking for months.
 
Then contract talks stalled as the union sought an actuary to review the plan. Particularly, the nurses had been concerned with a shift in the ratio of premiums employees pay by 10 percent for individual plans. 
 
In April, the two sides met again. BMC spokesman Michael Leary said the hospital agreed to keep that offer, which had averted the strike, on the table provided the nurses didn't issue another 10-day strike notification. 
 
On Thursday, the union held a rally outside of the hospital. There, Barb Connor of the union's bargaining committee said the union has agreed to concede the health insurance issue, which she called a "major compromise." 
 
The union is willing to accept the new premiums on health insurance but, in return, it wants stronger language to keep charge nurses from having patient assignments. 
 
"Our actuaries analyzed the data and we decided as a committee, after long discussions, to offer the hospital their proposal on health insurance. We will give management their number-one priority, so long as they agree to improve staffing in our contract and provide a fair-wage proposal that helps mitigate the cost of the insurance increase," Connor said.
 
 A lot of that is already part of the hospital's current offer. The hospital's offer calls for 12 percent salary increase for nurses over the life of the contract and increased pay for differentials. It does have language limiting the charge nurse's patient responsibilities. And it keeps the change in the health insurance premium split.
 
What nurses ask is now more about the nitty-gritty details. The union believes the hospital hasn't gone far enough when it comes to the staffing component.
 
According to MNA spokesman Joe Markman, the hospital's offer does provide relief for some charge nurses but not for all. The union has put forth a proposal that expands the type of charge nurses who are covered -- such as a nurse who doesn't have the formal title but does take on the job during a given shift -- and looks to more specifically outline the types of occasions for when charge nurses have patient assignments.
 
"We want to be really clear in the contract language," Markman said. 
 
The nurses say they don't want charge nurses to begin shifts with a patient assignment and from there, only be given patient assignments under certain circumstances. And they also want assurances that the hospital will recruit for open jobs.
 
"Charge nurses are staff nurses who take on a special role where they can help coordinate care throughout a hospital unit. This means helping with patient admissions and discharges, communicating with doctors and patients' families, making sure other nurses have an appropriate mix of patients based on how sick patients are, and helping nurses care for their patients when necessary," Connor said. 
 

The nurses started negotiations with a focus on staffing and that still continues to be the biggest point of contention. 
Markman called charge nurses "critical" for their role in essentially managing the unit and being able to direct resources under changing conditions, handle much of the required paperwork, and make sure the other nurses have the right mix of patients.
 
The union is willing to accept the hospital's full health insurance proposal -- implementation date may still be a sticking point -- in exchange for its staffing language. 
 
The hospital, however, isn't ready to commit to the union's proposed compromise yet. After putting forth what they felt was a fair contract months ago, the hospital is waiting on whether or not the union will accept it.
 
"BMC presented a comprehensive and generous offer to its nurses nearly two months ago. Although the MNA has yet to accept or reject that offer, the hospital expects that the union will give its answer at the May 25 bargaining session," Leary said.
 
In the past, the hospital has been cautious about certain specifics being placed into a contract because officials feel it could open them up to a grievance when unexpected things happen. The hospital has been focused on keeping flexibility in the way the staffing is done. So, while the distance between the two sides has been somewhat narrowed, sorting out that language still poses a challenge
 
Markman said the health insurance and the staffing measures are the two most outstanding issues and if those two can be solved, he believes a settlement would quickly fall into place. 
 
There certainly isn't any guarantee that a settlement is pending and a second strike still weighs heavy in the minds of both sides.
 
"On May 25, when we return to the bargaining table with our one-day strike notice in hand, we hope that the hospital will take yes for an answer and settle a fair contract," Connor said. 
 
When hearing that the nurses were rallying with a focus on safe staffing complaint forms, Leary found that troublesome because the last time the union did so was directly before a strike.
 
"The timing of this press release about MNA staffing complaint forms is worrisome, because the first time that the MNA used this tactic, the October strike followed in just about a month. We are troubled that the May 7 release is just an early warning of a second strike," Leary had said prior to the rally.
 
 
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