Tentative agreement averts second nursing strike at BMC

Registered nurses at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield have reached a tentative contract agreement with the hospital that would avert a planned one-day strike scheduled for Monday.

PITTSFIELD — Both Berkshire Medical Center and its registered nurses are hailing a tentative agreement that averts a second one-day strike and addresses staffing levels at the Pittsfield hospital.

The agreement was reached early Friday after three 16-hour days of bargaining. It must be ratified by the roughly 800 RNs at BMC represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association. That vote is expected in early July, after contract deals are distributed to union members.

The hospital calls the pact "fair and reasonable."

The union terms the agreement "a huge success for patients, nurses and the community by improving staffing and patient care conditions."

To get to the finish line, teams for both sides worked late three nights this week, watched at times by as many as three dozen union nurses. They crowded into a conference room packed with folding tables at the Berkshire Plaza Hotel, the former Crowne Plaza.

The contract would be retroactive to Oct. 1, 2016, and extend through Sept. 30, 2021.The last contract was for three years. Given the nearly two years spent in negotiations, the new one is about the same duration going forward.

If a ballot question this November passes requiring hospitals to provide set levels of nursing support, the hospital will honor that when it becomes law, according to one contract provision.

In the end, both sides gave up ground from initial bargaining positions to reach agreement, ending one of the most protracted recent health care labor disputes in Massachusetts.

"We didn't get exactly what we wanted, which is what bargaining is about," said Jody Stefanik, a member of the MNA's local bargaining committee. "We came to an agreement because both sides were willing to bargain."

RNs had planned to strike at 7 a.m. Monday for 24 hours. The hospital would have relied on replacement nurses for five days, as it did in response to a one-day strike Oct. 3.

Based on summaries of the agreement available so far, the hospital moved closer this week to the union's request to provide adequate relief for "charge" nurses, enabling them to lighten the loads of other registered nurses on busy shifts.

And it restored a proposal BMC's negotiating team made in late February not to make the staffing picture worse during the course of the contract.

That offer, said to be the first contract language backed by the hospital related to staffing, had been withdrawn after the strike notice was issued June 4. It was restored in talks this week.

For its part, the union agreed to let the hospital raise the employees' share of individual health insurance premiums from 10 to 20 percent, matching what other BMC workers pay. The union won a reprieve on new costs until Jan. 1.

In the end, the union's opening call more than a year ago for entirely new nurse staffing grids was abandoned, after the hospital strongly opposed it.

BMC's view

In a statement, BMC said its goal in negotiations with the union was to reach an agreement "that was fair and reasonable for them and sustainable for the hospital and the community."

"Having this contract finally settled is, of course, great news for the entire Berkshire community and all hospital employees," said the statement, released at 1:11 a.m. Friday. "We appreciate the solid support that we received from our community and our employees during these challenging months."

This week, BMC employees stepped out from the shadows to implore MNA members to reach an agreement and prevent a strike. At the start of talks Tuesday, the union received stacks of petitions with more than 350 signatures asking for an agreement.

Through at times acrimonious negotiations, the hospital said it continued to provide top-notch care, even during the October week when its RNs were off the job.

"With the distraction and divisiveness of strike threats gone, we look forward to returning our focus solely to delivering the high quality patient care that our community rightly expect of us," the BMC statement said.

The hospital declined further comment Friday, saying all key staff involved in the three marathon bargaining sessions this week had been allowed to go home.

MNA's view

The union said the 22-month negotiations succeeded in uniting nurses and community members over concerns about how staffing levels affect patient care.

"We are incredibly proud of this agreement that reflects our priority of improving nurse staffing and patient care," said Alex Neary, the RN who is co-chairwoman of the bargaining committee, in a statement. "Berkshire Medical Center nurses care deeply about our patients and our community. We owe our success in reaching this agreement to powerful unity among nurses and our community."

Stefanik, who sat with Neary on the bargaining committee, said support from the community mattered to nurses. "We really feel the community was behind the nurses and that pushed us to do what is right," she said.

Stefanik acknowledged the views of those who felt the union should not strike again, when asked about this week's anti-strike petitions.

"I support everyone having their voice and I understand their point of view," she said.

But through the bargaining, MNA members remained convinced they had to win improvements in staffing. "We came out more unified," she said.

Joe Markman, a union spokesman, said MNA members who work for the hospital continued to press for action on staffing levels in the next contract. In recent years, nurses had reported hundreds of instances in which they felt the lack of adequate staffing affected the quality of care.

The hospital countered that its staffing plans were nimble enough to cover gaps.

Markman said that when nurses agreed to suspend a planned February strike, it was to allow more time to pursue their key goals.

The message from membership, Markman said, was this: " 'We can't settle without the improved staffing.' That was the driving force the whole time and it continued to the end."

"We certainly compromised along the way," he said, "but that's a natural process."Gerri Jakacky, co-chairwoman of the bargaining committee, said the new BHS vice president for human resources, who began in October, was willing to take a fresh look at proposals.

The hospital's "last and final" offer a year ago, Jakacky said, evolved enough to allow common ground."It went from one end of the spectrum to another," she said.

Jakacky said she believes the need for more RN staffing stems largely from the 2014 closing of North Adams Regional Hospital. But she said friends who are nurses in other states also cite concerns about having enough time to provide proper patient care.

"It's not an MNA thing; it's a countrywide thing," she said.

Contract termsWhen the union issued a strike notice after talks June 4, it claimed the hospital had not done enough to address members' staffing concerns. The new terms improve on aspects of staffing related to the work of RNs.

According to the MNA, the tentative agreement provides for the following:

- Contract terms that will help keep charge nurses free from patient assignments so they can "fulfill the role of the charge nurse in order to ensure safe patient care on their units."

- BMC will add 9.5 full-time equivalent RN positions to four areas in the hospital.

- The hospital agreed not to diminish existing staffing grids concerning RNs.To provide the added help, the hospital is expected to post "float" positions, then backfill those with hiring.

"That will give us the support we were looking for," Jakacky said.- The hospital agreed to post and recruit positions when it is determined that a scheduled position in a unit and shift is "consistently unfilled for four or more consecutive schedule postings, unless the unfilled position is the result of a planned or unplanned leave of absence or the position is already posted."

- On wages, the union cited improvements that it says will "help recruit, retain and better compensate caregivers."

Thursday's bargaining was the 45th session held since the prior contract lapsed. Nurses had continued to work under terms of the old contract.

For the upcoming ratification vote, MNA members will gather through the course of a day, allowing different shifts to come and go. Voting is by secret ballot. A simple majority is needed for the contract to be approved.

Wage details

On the first payroll date after the contract is ratified by members, wage provisions will include the following, according to details provided by the MNA:

- Nurses who work 30 hours or more (defined as a full-time commitment) and are below the top of the wage scale will receive a ratification bonus of $2,000. Nurses who work fewer than 30 hours (a part-time commitment) and are below the top of the wage scale will receive a ratification bonus of $1,000.

- Nurses with a full-time commitment who are at the top of the wage scale will receive a ratification bonus of $3,000. Nurses with a part-time commitment who are at the top of the wage scale will receive a ratification bonus of $1,500.

- Effective on the first payroll date in October 2018, nurses shall receive a 2 percent across the board increase and a 2 percent adjustment to the wage scale. Also, the hospital will add a new "step" to the wage scale that is 2 percent higher than the existing top rate.

- Effective on the first payroll date in October 2019, nurses will receive a 1.75 percent across the board increase. Nurses at the top of the wage scale will receive a 2 percent lump sum award on their anniversary dates occurring between Oct. 1, 2019 and Sept. 30, 2020.

- Effective on the first payroll date in October 2020, nurses shall receive a 2 percent across the board increase, and nurses at the top of the wage scale will receive a 2 percent lump sum award on their anniversary dates occurring between Oct. 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021.

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