In raincoats, plastic ponchos and masks, Backus Hospital workers and their families Tuesday lined both sides of Washington Street in Norwich near the facility’s entrance. They held signs, waved to oncoming traffic and chanted.
“Nurses united will never be divided!”
It marked the beginning of a two-day strike by more than 400 members of the Backus Federation of Nurses, AFT Local 5149 as they bargain with the Hartford HealthCare-owned hospital for a new three-year contract.
Union leaders said they’re striking as a last resort after months of unsuccessful negotiations with hospital leadership over pandemic protections, benefits, staffing and other issues.
Both parties say they’ve made reasonable offers, but they’ve yet to reach an agreement as the health care system continues to take on COVID-19 testing and cases.
“We want them [patients] to know we’re only out here because we have to be. It’s not because we want to be,” said Meagan Muriel, a labor and delivery nurse. “But we feel like if we don’t do this now, we’re not going to be able to take care of them as well as they deserve in the future.”
The state Department of Public Health announced Tuesday that it will monitor health and safety standards at the hospital during the labor strike -- that includes verifying training of any replacement nurses and conducting on-site inspections.
Muriel, who sits on the union’s contract negotiation team, said registered nurses also want the hospital’s pledge to follow and adopt the most up-to-date federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on pandemic safeguards.
The strike comes about six weeks after a COVID-19 outbreak at the hospital infected at least nine employees, as well as a number of their family members.
Linda Kvasnik (left), a nurse at Backus Hospital, stands with her husband, John (right), as they picket with other nurses striking in front of the hospital. "I just hope that it all works out. That they're able to see that we have worth and we need the respect that we haven't gotten for a long time," she said.Credit Ryan Caron King / Connecticut PublicEdit | Remove
Workers say a lack of sufficient personal protective equipment was to blame -- Hartford HealthCare leadership pointed to inappropriate use of the equipment.
“It’s scary when you know that your colleagues are getting it, and not because they’re not following the right guidelines,” Muriel said. “Unfortunately, when you reuse your equipment and you’re storing things in dirty paper bags, then you bring it home to your family, it’s really hard.”
Donna Handley, Backus Hospital president, in a statement called the strike heartbreaking and the cause of an “unprecedented degree of disruption” during a health crisis. She said the hospital has made “every effort to avoid a strike.”
After 23 bargaining sessions with federal mediators, Handley said they’ve addressed issues with staffing, PPE, and accommodations for breastfeeding nurses.
The hospital is offering a wage increase for all registered nurses of 12.5% over three years, additional paid time off and a reduction of health care premiums by 2%, among other proposals.
“We remain firmly committed to reaching a reasonable agreement,” Handley said in a statement. “And while I am confident that both the hospital and the union ultimately will do so, now we are focused on the important work to be prepared to care for our patients.”
But union leaders and nurses say offers have fallen short of what they need and deserve, both for the short and long term.
Sherri Dayton is an ER nurse and president of the Backus Federation of Nurses, which represents more than 400 registered nurses at the hospital. She said while they’ve made some headway on a couple of issues like PPE, the union wants to do better in areas like wages, and staffing retention and recruitment.
“You can go 20 to 45 minutes in any direction of this hospital and make significantly more money, from $4 to $12 [more] an hour, depending on how many years you’ve been a nurse,” she said. “That makes it so we can’t retain nurses, and if we can’t retain nurses, then our staffing ratios are out of whack.”
Dayton said this has been a long and hard fight, but meeting their goals will ultimately benefit the community at large.
“We’re willing to negotiate. It’s a give and take,” she said. “The ball’s in their court. It’s their turn to move.”