BMC nurses signal 'compromise,' say they're willing to accept health premium hike

Barbara Connor, RN, speaks Thursday as Berkshire Medical Center nurses stand out in front of the hospital to rally for patient safety as they continue to negotiate a contract with the hospital.

PITTSFIELD — Registered nurses signaled Thursday that they are willing to accept a hike in their health care premiums, a move a union representative called a "major compromise" in the ongoing contract negotiations with Berkshire Medical Center.

But in return, the nurses want the hospital to meet their staffing demands.

"Our proposal is that charge nurses will not begin a shift with a patient assignment or a patient assignment that exceeds specified limits depending on the type of hospital unit," said Barbara Connor, a registered nurse who spoke for the union. "Safe staffing is and has always been our top priority."

The announcement came as more than two dozen people gathered outside the hospital Thursday afternoon for a rally in support of nurses in their negotiations, which began in September 2016. Speakers at the rally included city councilors, political candidates, business leaders and union members.

A spokesman for the hospital declined to comment on the development.

"BMC presented a comprehensive and generous offer to its nurses nearly two months ago," spokesman Micheal Leary said. "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."

The latest offer from the hospital, made in February, included language that said it will commit to avoiding assignments to charge nurses and clinical team leaders "when reasonably possible."

Charge nurses oversee units, allowing them to help other nurses when the number of patients on their shifts mounts. The Massachusetts Nurses Association, the union representing about 800 nurses at BMC and its satellite programs, argues that charge nurses often take on patient assignments, keeping them from their other duties.

The union has demanded specific limits to patient assignments for charge nurses.

The insurance change would increase costs for the plan by $20 a week, according to Brenda Cadorette, the hospital's chief nursing officer.

An outside consultant with expertise in actuarial records was hired by the union to analyze the impact of the insurance change, which would increase to 20 percent — from 10 percent — the portion of the premiums paid by individual plan holders, Markman said. About 300 members would be affected.

The nurses will ask for that increase to be imposed at a later date than previously proposed, Markman said. They will also seek a pay increase to make up for the premium increase, Connor added.

The rally was held to call attention to the 509 "unsafe working forms" the nurses have filed between October 2015 and April 2018, documenting conditions they feel are harmful to patient care, the union said in a statement Wednesday.

Leary, the hospital spokesman, noted "flaws" in the 75 forms that have been filed since September, including that they complain of perceived shortages in secretaries, nursing assistants and other support personnel in addition to nurses and that the forms do not indicate how long any of the perceived shortcomings lasted.

At least 40 percent of those 75 complaints "were triggered by scheduled nurses calling out sick," Leary said.

Connor said that if the hospital doesn't concede to their latest demand, nurses will come with a 1-day strike notice in hand.

The Pittsfield nurses struck for one day on Oct. 3, but were not allowed to return until five days had passed. The hospital says its contract with U.S. Nursing Corp. required it to use replacement nurses for five days.

Hospital officials said it cost $4 million to provide replacement staff, arrange security details and cover other costs related to the strike and four-day lockout. For their part, nurses lost a week's pay and then had to have the cost of health insurance taken out of their next pay, Amber VanBramer, a union member from Pittsfield, previously said.

A planned one-day strike Feb. 27 was called off after the hospital agreed not to "diminish" current staffing grids related to registered nurses.

Helen Moon, a city councilor and RN at Fairview Hospital, said she worked at BMC as a nursing student and experienced the number of patients that are served there.

She stressed on Wednesday that staffing can impact the outcome for patients, how they understand and care from their own conditions, and death rates.

Connor, who works in the endoscopy center, said that three nurses cared for 42 patients during their shift on Wednesday.

Aside from caring for the physical issues of patients, nurses should also be there to answer questions and address concerns they may have after a diagnosis, she said.

"What if you were just diagnosed with breast cancer? .. I want to be able to sit down and provide my undivided attention and even hold your hand if needed," Connor said. "And they (the nurses) don't have the time to do that."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.