Nurse staffing remains a dividing line in Berkshire Medical Center, union contract talks

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PITTSFIELD — Disagreement over proper nurse staffing at Berkshire Medical Center remains a dividing line in contract talks, against the backdrop of a possible strike.

Negotiators for the hospital this week rejected an alternative approach to staffing advanced July 20 by members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

The union has made calls for "safe staffing" a centerpiece of its 2017 negotiations statewide and hopes to bring the issue to voters next year. It represents registered nurses at the Pittsfield hospital.

Arthur D. Milano Jr., vice president for human resources, said the hospital told union negotiators Monday it would not accept the staffing plan they laid out last month.

In a variety of proposals, the union has attempted to win contract language related to the workload of its members, asserting that it is in the best interests of patients and the institution to avoid nurse burnout.

As an example, the union says it proposed this summer that "charge" nurses be assigned no patients, or a limited number of patients, to enable them to back up other nurses on a shift.

It is no longer seeking a contract with staffing grids specifying nurse-to-patient ratios, according to Dana Simon, the MNA staff member involved in negotiations in Pittsfield.

The MNA's 16-member local bargaining committee had been waiting for the hospital's response.

"They came back and just rejected all the staffing proposals," said Joe Markman, a union spokesman.

Milano said the hospital believes one of its proposals to the union does address staffing concerns flagged by the union.

The hospital has offered to create a formal mechanism to monitor and adjust to staff needs. It would come in the form of councils convened on each nursing unit.

Milano said those councils would regularly review information on patient numbers and care needs and make recommendations on staffing. According to Milano, those recommendations would be sent to the chief nursing officer, Brenda Cadorette, and could be further reviewed by the hospital's chief operating officer, Diane Kelly.

"We feel that we've given them a seat at the table that they're never had before," he said.

The union, however, sees that offer as a weakened version of the monthly staffing review sessions that already take place, Simon said. Under the "councils" system, there would be three union representatives and three managers, he said, and an MNA staff member would not be able to attend.

Union proposal

In negotiations Monday, the hospital moved to close off talk on the union's own staffing proposal — which focused on allowing charge nurses to have no direct patient responsibilities during days and evenings and reduced patient assignments at night.

Simon said that proposal was designed to allow the charge nurses — who he likened to "air-traffic controllers" of a unit — to help nurses they supervise manage through peaks of care-giving need.

"We felt if we could at least get some relief there, that would be major," Simon said in an interview Thursday.

But the hospital defends the value of its current system.

"We're currently staffed in a way that we feel is appropriate," Milano said.

He also said the hospital and union continue to negotiate on issues unrelated to staffing.

"We're not agreed on economics yet. There are other things on the table," he said.

The hospital has offered a 10 percent salary increase over three years. The union is asking for a 3.5 percent increase in a one-year contract, with a 1.5 percent retroactive pay bump.

The hospital employs roughly 800 registered nurses; 616 of them are voting members of the MNA.

Nurses continue to work under terms of a contract that lapsed Sept. 30, 2016, but remains in effect due to an "evergreen" provision.

Members of the union rejected the hospital's "best and final" offer at the end of May. In July, nurses voted 442-92 to authorize their bargaining committee to call a one-day strike.

Berkshire Medical Center says it is prepared to provide replacement nurse staffing for a week and to continue regular hospital operations, if a strike is called. Due to notification requirements, the strike could not come before Sept. 1.

New complaint

As talks continue, the MNA continues to seek federal help with what it claims to be unfair labor practices by the hospital related to negotiations.

On Tuesday, the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging it has been unable to receive data it needs to conduct talks on behalf of its members.

"The Employer has repeatedly failed and refused to provide information relevant and necessary for the Union to bargain over health insurance," the charge filed with the NLRB states.

Markman said that while the hospital has provided some information, the union needs more data on use of the hospital's health coverage as it pursues efforts to shape new types of policies for its members.

For instance, the union seeks the option of having members enroll in limited plans that cover them and their children, or them and a partner.

Now, the nurses can choose either individual or family plans.

"In order to negotiate effectively, we need to really understand where claims are coming from," Markman said.

He said the union wants to study existing costs for health coverage in an effort to bolster its bargaining position on the alternative policies it wants the hospital to consider.

Markman said the union did receive "summary" data, including the total number of claims and information on premiums.

Milano said the hospital does not believe the MNA is entitled to obtain that data. "We still question the validity of their asking for that," he said.

The new unfair labor practices complaint joins at least two others filed during current negotiations. One submitted in July alleges the hospital created a new policy without giving the union a chance to review it.

The complaint filed by Simon of the MNA reads in part: "Management has broadened the circumstances in which absentee occurrences will be disciplined without regard for the reason for said absences or any other changes."

Another complaint targets a letter sent to employees by Milano July 13. The union claims the letter violated federal labor law by listing possible consequences of a strike.

Milano previously told The Eagle the hospital believes it has the right to communicate directly with the nurses.

All of the complaints are pending before the NLRB.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass

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