Day of picketing shifts to lockout for BMC registered nurses

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This story was reported and written by staff writers Heather Bellow, Patricia LeBoeuf, Larry Parnass and Adam Shanks.

PITTSFIELD — While a one-day strike by registered nurses was to end at 7 a.m. Wednesday, conflict is expected to continue this week outside Berkshire Medical Center, as a union that hasn't struck for decades continues to appeal for public support amid what's now a lockout.

Minutes before the sun rose Tuesday in Pittsfield, members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association greeted colleagues coming off the night shift, welcoming them with chants as the union mobilized for rallies and 24 hours of picketing.

Inside the hospital, behind clusters of security guards positioned by entrances, some of the 247 U.S. Nursing Corp. replacement RNs brought to the Berkshires began five days of work. The hospital says the replacement staff could only be hired for that period, a position the union is challenging.

Nonetheless, MNA members plan to attempt to enter the North Street medical center early Wednesday morning and report for duty.

"We are going to try to go back to work. We want to be inside," said Amber VanBramer, a registered nurse and bargaining committee member.

All signs point to the hospital refusing entry.

"The union certainly knew that there is no such thing as a one-day strike," said David Phelps, the president and CEO of Berkshire Health Systems, on Monday.

Cathy Pease, an RN on the union's bargaining committee and a 30-year employee, said of efforts to short-circuit the lockout: "I really don't think they're going to welcome us with open arms."

The union's job action played out not only on North Street but at BMC campuses off West Street in Pittsfield and in North Adams.

Nothing was quiet about these hospital zones.

For hundreds of union members, who paraded and socialized under bright sun Tuesday, it was a day to find strength in numbers, wave to supporters leaning on the horns of passing cars and trucks and share stories about what they see as this strike's central issue: inadequate staffing.

For city officials in Pittsfield, the day brought concerns for public safety.

And for hospital administrators, the challenge was to operate as usual in the face of a major staffing dislocation they estimate will cost them more than $4 million before it ends Sunday.

Nurses speak out

Many on the picket line Tuesday spoke of a sense of obligation to patients — a duty to make sure they can count on quality care.

"This is a cause we're sacrificing for," said Erin Ramsey, a BMC emergency room nurse for nine years. "This is bigger than me, individually."

Taking a break from marching up and down the sidewalk in front of the hospital, Lynn Ciccone said the strike was a last resort.

"We just want to make things better for everybody," said Ciccone, a nurse for 18 years. "We love this hospital, and we want to see it be better, and be what it's supposed to be."

Mark Brodeur, a post-anesthesia care nurse, characterized the day's action as an effort to better things for all county residents.

"We deserve better," he said. "Berkshire County deserves better. Our patients and our community deserve it."

"What do we want? Safe staffing! When do we want it? Now!" nurses chanted Tuesday morning.

As the crowd of nurses grew, they began marching on the sidewalk, most holding signs. Some signs said: "If Berkshire Medical Center nurses are out here, something is wrong in there."

Other signs said: "Standing up for patient safety because we care," and "Patient Safety over Profit$."

Later, at a 5 p.m. rally, Brodeur said to about 80 people gathered by the side of North Street: "As we are asked to do more, or less, patients suffer. We are a big part of this community."

It was hard for Heather Biernacki, a nurse for 25 years, to tell patients she would be striking Tuesday instead of caring for them.

Biernacki is a third-generation nurse. Her 34-year-old daughter is a medical-surgical nurse at BMC.

"We go back long and deep with roots to [the] hospital," said Biernacki, a psychiatric nurse. "It feels so strange to be standing outside here."

Marie Geary, also a psychiatric nurse, said she hopes the strike can lead to better conditions for the next generation of nurses like Cassie Lipa, who was with her on the picket line.

"I look at young nurses like Cassie, and my hope is that what we're fighting for will be of benefit to them," she said.

Geary recalled Lipa becoming a nurse — she was previously a clinical therapist at BMC.

For Lipa, the strike was worth the cost, including the time without pay.

"If you believe in something, the sacrifice is worthy," she said. "It doesn't even feel like a sacrifice. I'm glad to be a part of this."

On a section of Wahconah Street, nurse Alexis Montgomery, who works in case management, called out cheerful hellos to all who passed, determined to show that nurses believe in community.

"We're the only ones in the hospital who will hold your hand when you're sick," she said. "That's what we do."

Bonnie Anderson, a fellow case management nurse, said she hated to be away from her duties.

"We love BMC. I made it all the way to the parking garage yesterday and then broke into tears," she said. "We love our jobs. We just want more help."

North Adams picketing

In North Adams, Mary Bryant stood on a picket line not only as a current patient, but a former nurse at the now-closed North Adams Regional Hospital.

"It's not the first time I've walked this street, but it's painful every time," Bryant said, joining dozens of other nurses and community members on Hospital Avenue in North Adams early Tuesday.

Bryant was a nurse for 40 years until North Adams Regional Hospital closed in 2014. Over the years, nurses marched in the same location during labor disputes with the former hospital.

"I want to make sure we have safe staffing levels," Bryant said.

In the wake of the community hospital's closure, Berkshire Health Systems acquired the facility and now operates a satellite campus there, with an emergency department and numerous other medical services.

On Tuesday, in a scene reminiscent of the protests that immediately followed the abrupt closure of the former hospital, a mixture of North Adams Police and private security guards were stationed outside the facility.

"It's about providing for our patients," said Jen Billington, a nurse of 22 years who works at the North Adams campus in the Endoscopy Unit.

Billington said the nurses understand that Berkshire Health Systems management needs to run a business, but said, "We're the ones taking care of patients" and understand what are safe staffing levels.

Nurses on the picket line said they did not make the decision to strike for one day — followed by a four-day lockout — lightly, noting that they are losing five days' pay and regret not being able to care for patients during this time.

"I know the girls in the ER were in tears just leaving the ER this morning," said Jennifer Howland, a nurse in ambulatory surgery who worked at the former North Adams Regional Hospital.

For Mike Wilbur, a community member and advocate for medical services in Northern Berkshire County, said the theme of Tuesday's strike was simple: "Our nurses, our city."

Nurses and community members along the picket line chanted lines such as "I don't know, but I've been told, [Berkshire Health Systems President and CEO] David Phelps has no soul."

They also chanted that the "MNA is here to stay."

Rally remarks

A full day of picketing in Pittsfield was punctuated by short speeches at noon and 5 p.m.

John Krol, vice president of Pittsfield City Council, brought cheers when he told more than 100 gathered nurses at noon that their cause is everyone's cause.

"This is about my mother and your mother. My father and your father. My brothers and your brothers," he said. "My sisters and your sisters. My children and your children."

Krol said that in an election year "it's really not politically safe to do what I'm doing. But it's far more important to be here standing with you, because this about the future of care in Berkshire County.

Helen Moon, an RN at Fairview Hospital and candidate for a Ward 1 City Council seat in Pittsfield, said she too took a political risk by speaking out but was undaunted.

"This is about Berkshire County and what we're going to stand up for," she said.

Eric Bauer of Western Mass Jobs for Justice, a coalition of labor unions, mentioned the salaries of Berkshire Health Systems executives and suggested the nurses deserve more.

"Nurses put love into the world," he said.

Food provided all day by Berkshire Money Management, whose managing director, Bill Schmick, listened to speeches and offered support. Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers delivered boxes of doughnuts.

Schmick said he is grateful for care he received in four recent hospitalizations.

"I have so much to repay these people," he said. "My heart goes out to them."

His company paid for food throughout the day, including a delivery of 100 sandwiches from On a Roll Cafe in Pittsfield by its owner, David Barile.

Donna Stern, a nurse at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, brought encouragement.

"You must stick together," she told the gathering. "Together as nurses we are powerful. Take the energy from today. Remember we are with you. You are not alone."

Cathy Roth, a current cancer patient at BMC, took the microphone, steadied on both sides by two nurses. She thanked nurses for care she's received through hard times with side effects of her treatment.

"I feel that it is our hospital too," she said. "I say trust our nurses."

Rallies are planned for 5 p.m. Wednesday at BMC and at 5 p.m. Thursday in North Adams.

City's response

Mayor Linda Tyer and city officials are keeping their focus on public safety outside the hospital.

The city's police department will monitor picketing for 18 hours a day for the next four days.

"The role of the city is to provide safety," said Roberta McCulloch-Dews, Tyer's spokeswoman. "We respect the nurses' right to strike. We are reaffirming that the city will do all that it can to protect the public safety."

McCulloch-Dews said Tyer did not have any comment about issues that led to the strike and lockout.

Police Lt. Gary Traversa said the department is working to keep sidewalks and roads clear and to manage traffic in certain spots.

Traversa said he expected a round-the-clock presence for the 24-hour strike, and picketing from 6 a.m. to midnight for the lockout.

"It definitely puts some stress on personnel," he said.

In shifts, union members are required to be on the picket line for the duration of a strike, according to David Schildmeier, an MNA spokesman.

Traversa said police are in close touch with BMC and union officials, and have contingency plans in place in the event of a civil disturbance.

"We're obviously hoping it doesn't get to that point," he said.

Staffing issue

Nurses on the picket line reiterated concerns heard throughout a year of negotiations about levels of RN staffing at the hospital.

Hannah Pease, a nurse in the 2 East Medical Unit, said patients sometimes wait too long for care.

"They go without," Pease said of the effect of staffing shortages. "A lot of the times, we don't have nursing assistants to answer their call bells."

Michael Leary, the BMC spokesman, said the medical center operates to ensure adequate staffing and provides flexibility, based on the guidelines of the American Nurses Association.

"The union throws out 'safe staffing' and 'unsafe staffing' as if they define it," Leary said. "We have safe staffing at BMC."

Still, nurses on the picket line spoke Tuesday of staffing problems.

Nurse Darlene Chazey believes staffing problems make it hard for her to deliver proper care, particularly in pain management.

"That's what we're here for, is to take care of their suffering," said Chazey, who has worked at the hospital for over 45 years.

"You always find a way to manage," said Cassie Lipa, a psychiatric nurse at BMC. "But it's hard. You feel like you have no one to turn to."

Reach Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871 or @BE_hbellow; Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks; Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247 or @BE_plebouef; and Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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