BMC union

Union nurses and hospital management are at odds over staffing levels and other problems that nurses say increase the risk of contracting COVID-19 at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield.

PITTSFIELD — Staffing levels have improved at Berkshire Medical Center since employees were ordered to work overtime amid a rush of patients on New Year’s Eve, but the incident has opened a rift between the administration and the union representing registered nurses.

Of the 70 workers who had tested positive for COVID-19 last week, 22 were back at work by Tuesday. Left unresolved, though, are lingering coronavirus pandemic-related issues, including staffing levels, patient safety and the allocation of personal protective equipment, raised by the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

A representative of the union accused the hospital of breaking the law when it ordered the nurses to work past their shifts’ end, and alleged that staffing shortages and other concerns could be driving the spread of the virus. A spokesperson for the hospital disputed those claims and pointed out that the hospital is facing revenue losses in the tens of millions.

During an emergency meeting Monday with hospital management, union leaders pushed unsuccessfully for bonuses that, they say, would alleviate the shortages by enticing nurses to take extra shifts.

The union says an incentive bonus of $22.50 an hour would help solve these problems and boost morale at a time when “nurses are working above and beyond,” said Alex Neary, a critical care nurse and co-chairperson of the union’s bargaining committee.

“Even though they’ll say we appreciate what you do, they don’t understand the scope — the actual bedside, what that all entails,” Neary added, noting that the nurses are committed to exemplary care, despite the lack of bonuses.

In a statement Tuesday in response to the union’s complaints, representatives of Berkshire Health Systems, which owns the hospital, noted that the company has not cut jobs, despite being strained by deep pandemic losses.

“Hospitals across the state during the pandemic have implemented layoffs and other cost-reduction measures,” wrote Michael Leary and Jennifer Vrabel, spokespersons for BHS. “We have been determined to make thoughtful, careful changes to our operations to prioritize our employees and retain jobs.”

In a Dec. 3 memo to employees, company leaders said that, amid $65 million in pandemic-related losses and a $35 million deficit, despite government assistance, it chose not to lay off workers or reduce salaries.

The company increased wages for noncontractual staff, they said, but is making a cut to retirement benefits, while administrators took voluntary wage cuts of 5 to 10 percent for the year.

New Year’s surge

The pandemic has stirred long-running labor issues at the hospital. Those boiled over on New Year’s Eve, when a sudden swell of visits, some related to COVID-19, caused the hospital to declare an in-house emergency that required staff to work past the end of shifts.

Union leaders say BHS violated the state’s mandatory overtime law, which forbids mandatory overtime unless there is an emergency where there is no other alternative. Incentive bonuses, they suggest, would serve as that alternative.

Leary, director of media relations for BHS, noted that state overtime law has an exception for emergency situations. He and Vrabel said the hospital has had to run an emergency-type command structure since March to make decisions to respond to fast-moving problems.

They did not address whether the bonus would qualify as a legally suitable alternative.

Aggravating the staffing issues is the recent spike in coronavirus-positive inpatients — 47 as of Tuesday — that nurses say has made workers vulnerable.

A number of nurses, under the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, have told The Eagle that the distribution of highly protective N95 masks is not as liberal as it could be. Leary said last week that there is no shortage, and that the hospital’s infection rates — about 9 percent — mirror that in the community.

But, it is the company’s decision to not offer the bonuses — as have at least 17 hospitals statewide — that nurses say is creating another risk, through understaffing.

“It was insane and unsafe,” a nurse recounted to union officials about the situation Thursday. “COVID patients were with non-COVID patients … they put two known positive [patients] in the area where I was working and I was never notified. I didn’t have an N95 on, so now I was exposed.”

And the nurses say there already were staffing shortages before the pandemic.

“The emotional toll on the nursing staff is as equal, if not greater than, the physical toll,” Neary said. “Every day you’re faced with these critically ill people and family can’t come. Despite all this, the nurses are taking excellent care of [patients].”

In their statement, Leary and Vrabel said the company is grateful to the “talented, compassionate and dedicated” workforce that has “remained flexible, tough, and determined” in the face of an ever-evolving pandemic that could send more cases into the hospital post-holidays.

Nine months into a pandemic, the challenges continue for the hospital.

“Patients are experiencing shorter length of stay in the hospital (7-8 days),” they wrote, “but we are still admitting, treating, and releasing as many as four-times more patients than we did in March.”

This story has been modified to correct the number of staffers that have returned to work.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871. On Twitter @BE_hbellow.