Tufts stands by "final" contract offer: Lawmakers back nurses

Tufts Medical Center nurses, who are locked out of work until Monday after a one-day strike, picket during a rally outside the hospital Thursday afternoon.

BOSTON — Tufts Medical Center officials said Thursday they stand by the "best and final" contract offer they made to a union that called its nurse members into a strike Wednesday, as some local politicians urged the hospital to return to the bargaining table.

With temporary nurses brought in on a five-day contract to cover the hospital during the strike, Massachusetts Nurses Association members who participated cannot come to work until Monday. They marched outside hospital's Washington Street entrance Thursday, wearing signs that said "We're Locked Out!" and "If nurses are out here, something is wrong in there."

Chief nursing officer Terry Hudson-Jinks told reporters that hospital operations would continue as usual through Monday.

"The pension is the issue. That's the issue," Hudson-Jinks said, adding that the hospital faces financial constraints and had "put everything on the table."

"We continue to keep the lines of communication open, but we have been clear: we don't have any additional financial resources," she said.

The union, which described its one-day strike as largest nurses' strike in Massachusetts history and the first in Boston in over 30 years, has said Tufts nurses are the lowest paid in Boston. The nurses are seeking wage increases, higher staffing levels and "pension protections/improvements that will make the hospital market competitive."

"What we're asking for essentially is all about the resources that we need to provide safe patient care, so that really can't be their last, best and final offer," Mary Havlicek Cornacchia, an operating room staff nurse who co-chairs the MNA's bargaining unit, told the News Service. "I knew they threw a little extra money in the pot on Tuesday. We're not looking for more money. We just want the resources in place to provide the care that we need to give our patients."

The hospital said the pension plan the union has proposed is "highly risky" and would put "put tremendous liability on Tufts Medical Center" while also providing less in benefits for nurses. Under Tufts' proposal, nurses now in a defined benefit plan -- about a quarter of the hospital's nurses -- would keep the pension benefits they have earned, and future benefits would be through a 403(b) plan, the nonprofit version of a 401(k), according to the hospital.

The nurses union, meanwhile, describes the 403(b) matching program as "high risk" and said the nurses remaining in the defined benefit plan would continue receiving the lowest employer contribution of all nurses in Boston.

The strike comes amid a focus on trimming health care costs, industry-wide concerns about tightening state and federal budgets, and consolidations in the provider industry that are reshaping the landscape for workers and patients.

The Beth Israel Deaconess system, Lahey Health, New England Baptist Hospital, Mount Auburn Hospital and Anna Jaques Hospital on Thursday announced they had signed an agreement to merge into a new regional system, with the goal of providing lower cost care.

At a noontime rally, Reps. Ed Coppinger of West Roxbury and Mike Connolly of Cambridge told nurses they wanted to see the hospital continue negotiating.

Coppinger said elected officials would do what they could "to help you urge management to put on their big boy pants and get back to the table."

"Nothing you guys are asking for seems out of the ordinary," Coppinger said.

Coppinger brought pizza to the picketers, and MNA representatives said U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's office sent coffee and pastries in the morning.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren, a Democrat running for governor, issued a statement calling on Tufts to end the lockout and return to negotiations.

"I stand in solidarity with the Tufts nurses," Setti Warren said. "I do so as someone who has sat on the other side of the collective bargaining table as a mayor and I know that the five minutes right before you come to an agreement can feel as hopeless as the countless hours you've already spent negotiating. You just have to keep talking."

About a dozen lawmakers joined the nurses during the strike Wednesday, including Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Reps. Josh Cutler, Paul Mark, Denise Garlick, Marjorie Decker, Dan Ryan, Dave Rogers, Claire Cronin, Tom Stanley, Dan Cullinane and Gerry Cassidy.

Decker, a Cambridge Democrat, told the crowd that "negligent" hospital officials were calling for "business as usual."

"We know for a fact, regardless of where you stand, if you believe that you can replace all of your nurses with traveling nurses, temporary nurses, and not put patient safety at risk, you are lying," Decker said to cheers and applause.

Hospital officials voiced confidence Thursday in the temporary nurses, who they said received two days of offsite training and additional instruction and supervision once at Tufts. To cover nursing shifts that would be left vacant during the strike, Hudson-Jinks said that the hospital had to enter in a five-day contract at a cost of about $6 million. Other costs of the strike, including additional security, are still being tallied, she said.

Monday, when the striking nurses are scheduled to return to work, will be a day "unlike we've ever had," Hudson-Jinks said. She said she expected some teams would have "sit-down discussions" to figure out how to put the labor dispute aside and work together.

"We're going to be glad to see them," Hudson-Jinks said. "We actually like them a lot."

Havlicek Cornacchia said there would be people on the picket line continuously through Monday morning.

"We're anxious to get back in there," she said. "Some of our patients are long-term patients and we're concerned about their safety currently. And we're ready to go back to work."

Tufts Medical spokeswoman Rhonda Mann said the nurses union knew a strike would force the hospital to bring in help to continue patient care. "Part of the MNA playbook is staging a dramatic scene the morning after a strike. This is a stunt orchestrated for the media," Mann said in a statement. "The union was aware - well before it issued a strike notice - that a strike would force us to bring in expert nurses for a contractually-required five day period.