The nurse strike at Tenet Healthcare-owned St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts has now reached six months. The strike is the longest in the state’s history, but Tenet says it has already offered its “last, best, and final offer” to the striking caregivers.
The protests follow more than 18 months of negotiations, where nurses spoke with hospital CEO Carolyn Jackson about what they felt was unsafe practices after more than 100 nurses left the facility. Through the Massachusetts Nursing Association, the nurses say that some wore trash bags when there weren’t enough protective gowns during the pandemic, and many became infected with COVID-19. Staff was furloughed at the hospital early in the pandemic.
The nurses filed more than 1,000 official reports of unsafe conditions, signed and delivered a petition to Jackson in March 2020 demanding safer conditions. In January, nurses began to picket outside the hospital, and in February, the nurses cast an 89 percent vote in favor of the strike. More than 700 nurses joined the strike in March, and most continue to strike more than six months later.
As the strike moved forward, Tenet permanently replaced the nurses. A letter signed by more than 30 political leaders included Massachusetts U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, numerous members of Congress, state senators, Worcester city council members, and the mayor of Worcester expressed displeasure about the move. “There should be no discussion whatsoever to replace striking workers, especially after everything these nurses have gone through the last year,” the letter reads. Lawn signs, prayer vigils, and other symbols of support have joined the nurse’s efforts in the area.
But Tenet maintains they have followed the law and calls the nurse’s actions “a disinformation campaign to advance their irresponsible agenda and damage Saint Vincent Hospital’s exceptional reputation.” The replacement nurses are a combination of MNA-represented nurses and others, and Tenet says it was forced to hire them as the strike wore on.
Throughout negotiations, Tenet has guaranteed all striking nurses a job at St. Vincent if they want one and will not force any nurse in their position to lose one. The hospital says that 85 to 90 percent of nurses will return to their roles, though that number decreases as more replacements are hired. “We again appeal to the MNA to end its strike, accept the Hospital’s offer, and accept the reality that the Hospital will not involuntarily displace its permanent replacement nurses,” the hospital said in a statement. The hospital says that 270 of the nurses have come back to work or are planning to and that their pay and benefits package is better than any hospital in the state in the last two years.
Late last month, MNA filed its eighth charge of unfair labor practices against Tenet with the National Labor Relations Board, saying the company has coerced, intimidated, and retaliated against the nurses. This was after MNA says the nurses were ready to come back to work, only to back out when they say Tenet “demanded the nurses accept an unprecedented and punitive back to work provision” and included replacing striking nurses with others.
“This was a callous demand at the 11th hour by our CEO in blatant retaliation against the nurses with only one goal, to punish the nurses for our strike, to break our union and thereby silence our voice as advocates for our patients and our community,” said Marlena Pellegrino, RN, a longtime nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit with the Massachusetts Nurses Association via release.
St. Vincent says claims of unsafe behavior are unfounded and refuse to fire the nurses who have stepped into roles to help the hospital continue to serve patients. U.S. News and World Report named the hospital in its list of Best Regional Hospitals, highlighting the nurse staffing practices. “We will not perpetuate this injustice further by forcibly removing the nurses who stepped up to care for this community, and we will happily attempt to resolve this by working with each striking nurse who might not have their exact prior role,” a statement reads.
Tenet’s latest offer includes an increase of resource nurses for additional support from 11 units to 20, an increase in staffing in multiple units to respond to patient census numbers, an 8-35 percent increase in wages by 2024, a 3 percent lump-sum bonus based on hours worked, a reduction in out-of-pocket healthcare benefit expenses, and more safety measures. Tenet reached an agreement in 25 other union contracts in the last two years. “It is time for the MNA bargaining committee to accept this offer or put it to a vote overseen by the federal mediator,” Jackson says.
Tenet employs more than 110,000 people around the country, owns 65 hospitals and over 500 other healthcare facilities, including ambulatory surgery centers, urgent care centers, imaging centers, surgical hospitals, off-campus emergency departments, and micro-hospitals in about 10 U.S. states. Its subsidiaries include ambulatory care company U.S. Surgical Partners and revenue cycle management company Conifer Health Solutions, which will spin off in 2022. The company posted profits of $399 million in 2020 but will need to repay Medicare after taking $1.5 billion in advance payments during the pandemic.
The two sides seem to be in a stalemate as the strike drags on. “The fact that we are still outside this hospital, the hospital we love and have served, some of us for 10, 20, even 40 years is a travesty and serves as an indictment of Tenet Healthcare and their unyielding desire for profit and power at the expense of the suffering of our patients and our community,” said Pellegrino via release. “Our nurses want nothing more than to be back at the bedside to provide our patients with the dignity and expert care they expect and deserve from this, their community hospital.”