Pittsfield nurses renew appeals to hospital trustees

A fourth scheduled bargaining session is scheduled Tuesday since a one-day strike by and four-day lockout of registered nurses at Berkshire Medical Center in October.

PITTSFIELD — Registered nurses will again ask trustees of Berkshire Health Systems to back their demands for staffing improvements in a new contract.

Members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association plan to deliver a petition Monday to one of those board members, a day before the fourth scheduled bargaining session since a one-day strike and four-day lockout in October.

The petition, reportedly signed by 85 percent of the local union's members, asks trustees to press Berkshire Medical Center leaders to agree to the union's demands for increased staffing, saying current employment levels adversely affect patient care.

The association represents more than 800 registered nurses at the Pittsfield hospital and two satellite operations, including a medical campus in North Adams.

The hospital and its RNs have been working to shape a new contract since September 2016.

Joe Markman, a spokesman for the MNA, said nurses plan to rally at noon Monday at Park Square in Pittsfield, then deliver a copy of the petition to Jerome J. Anderson, a BHS trustee, at the Pittsfield Cooperative Bank on South Street.

That action echoes earlier outreach by nurses to trustees, including an attempt in August to get an audience with John L. Bissell, president and CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union. Bissell was not in the building at the time.

Hospital spokesman Michael Leary said Friday that trustees are kept current on the status of contract talks as they work to assure that "this key community health care provider stays strong and effective, especially in this challenging health care climate."

Alex Neary, a longtime RN at the hospital and co-chairwoman of the union's bargaining committee, said trustees of a nonprofit organization are duty-bound to make decisions in the best interests of the community.

As she sees it, that means backing the union's push for improved staffing, in the face of what nurses say is a steady rise in their workload.

According to the union, the Pittsfield hospital saw a 13 percent increase in patient numbers from 2013 to 2015, in part driven by the closing of the former North Adams Regional Hospital.

"Although some trustees are trying to do the right thing, the board itself is failing the public trust and allowing hospital administrators to treat patient care like line items on a corporate balance sheet," Neary said in a statement released Friday by the union.

Markman said the most recent contract bargaining session, held Dec. 20, did not lead to any breakthroughs. A federal mediator is taking part in the talks.

Leary said the past three meetings have made progress, from the hospital's perspective.

"Due to the continuing talks, we will not at this time go into detail, but sessions have been positive and we look forward to the next session," he said.

The union continues to seek language in the next contract related to staffing levels. The hospital has opposed several union proposals on staffing, including not only minimum staffing numbers, but an effort to curtail the number of patients cared for by "charge" nurses.

The hospital has offered to convene a committee made up of administrators and nurses to review staffing concerns.

The petition to be delivered Monday calls on trustees to live up to their roles as "stewards" of an institution that receives most of its funding through tax dollars and private donations.

"Trustees have an obligation to take the time and listen to the patient safety concerns being raised by the community and nurses," the petition reads. "This is your job."

Leary said "the volunteer members of the Berkshire Health Systems Board of Trustees work hard to fulfill their stewardship responsibilities."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.