Emotions high for nurses as one-day strike shifts to lockout at BMC

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PITTSFIELD — In near-complete silence, registered nurses marched early Wednesday from the picket line to the main entrance of Berkshire Medical Center.

Promptly at 7 a.m., the more than 60 nurses, many wearing heavy coats and gloves against the early-morning chill, reported for shifts they didn't expect to begin.

They were met in the lot in front of the main entrance by Berkshire Health Systems officials — Diane Kelly, chief operating officer, Brenda Cadorette, chief nursing officer and Arthur Milano, vice president of human resources.

Milano told the nurses they would be welcomed back on Oct. 8, but not before.

The lockout came 24 hours after the nurses walked off the job — a one-day strike in response to an impasse with the hospital over staffing levels and wages. The Massachusetts Nursing Association, the union representing the nurses, called for a one-day strike, but BHS has said U.S. Nursing Corp., the agency supplying experienced replacement nurses, requires a minimum five-day commitment.

Nurses protested as Cadorette, Kelly and Milano turned and walked away. They chanted, "Our hospital, our patients."

Back on the sidewalk, several nurses could be seen wiping away tears.

One hugged a crying nurse in lavender scrubs. Others picked up printed signs reading "Berkshire Medical Center nurses locked out" and hung them around their necks.

Some nurses had been picketing overnight, including Sherri Hamm, a nurse at BMC since 2000.

"This whole situation has been — it's made me sick," she said as she waited to approach the entrance with the other nurses. "The way we've been viewed by management. I kind of feel villainized."

'You're attached'

Just after 6:30 a.m., at least 60 nurses were already on the scene.

Several camping lanterns, boxes of coffee, a box of handwarmers and an open platter of vegetables could be seen on tables by the sidewalk just after 6:30 a.m., before nurses approached the building to report for their shifts.

Pam Bartlett, a critical care nurse, was scheduled to start her shift at 7 a.m.

Waiting to walk down to the hospital entrance with the other nurses, she said she didn't expect to be allowed in.

"It's heart-wrenching to know that I can't go back in there," she said. "I had a seriously ill patient on Sunday. I'm worried about them. When you leave the hospital, you don't leave your job ... you're attached to the patients and the families."

Bartlett has worked at the hospital since 1989.

Most of the nurses started to march in a circular pattern up and down the sidewalk almost immediately after being turned away.

But a handful hung back by the sidewalk, including Maria Brodeur, a case manager who has been a registered nurse at the hospital since 1985.

She was teary-eyed as she discussed her years of experience at the hospital, including when she was a volunteer at the age of 15.

"BMC is my family," she said. "I love my hospital. My heart is so sad."

She said all she wants is for issues to be resolved.

"It was so disheartening to walk down that driveway and being told to turn around," said Patricia Zuccaro, a nurse at BMC for over 16 years. "We don't want to leave our patients. [There were] lots of tears, walking away."

Nurses have a lot of fear for patients they're leaving, said Marie Mathews, a nurse on the stroke unit.

"We're kind of praying and hoping for the best," she said.

Regular nurses get into a kind of rhythm working with each other and with support staff that temporary nurses don't have, she said.

Experienced crew

The replacement nurses are fully licensed in the state and bring a wide range of experience, said BHS spokesman Michael Leary in an email. Those working in specialty areas, such as telemetry, have specialty certifications and experience in those clinical specialties.

Their transition to work was smooth at Berkshire Medical Center and the Hillcrest Campus of BMC in Pittsfield, and the North Adams Campus of BMC.

About 11 private security officers were stationed near the main entrance to the hospital during the morning.

Nurses will continue picketing from 6 a.m. to midnight on the days of the lockout, said David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the MNA.

As picketing continued into the late morning Wednesday, nurses lined up on Wahconah Street. A chorus of honking from passing cars accompanied them.

"That's right, you tell them!" yelled the driver of a nearby car to the nurses. Despite the change from a strike to a lockout, the scene outside the hospital Wednesday was much the same as Tuesday.

"I think everyone is still very positive," said Alexis Montgomery, a case manager. "I think the spirit is still very high."

It will be hard to go without pay for the time of the lockout, but nurses were prepared for the worst, she said.

"We all knew that it was going to happen, but that doesn't make it any easier," said Bonnie Anderson, who stood with Montgomery greeting those arriving for work at the hospital.

Michelle Myers, a pediatric nurse, came to stand with Anderson and Montgomery shortly after 11 a.m.

Financially, she will be OK for the week — but her situation is different from some other nurses, she said.

"I'm 62 years old," she said. "I do not have a young family. I am married, with a husband who works."

Fiery rally

Nurses continued picketing into the warm evening, where musicians played Tom Petty's, "I won't back down," as Zucchini's Restaurant delivered trays of meatballs, pasta, salad and bread.

The food was sent by MNA members from Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, where the union called a strike last summer. The BMC strike is the union's third this year.

At a 5 p.m. rally, Donna Stern, chairwoman of the Greenfield MNA bargaining committee, gave a fiery speech against hospital management and in support of "sister" nurses.

"They have forgotten whose hospital this is," she said, noting that taxpayer money is funneled into the hospital through programs like Medicaid. "Labor has been asleep for far too long."

And Stern said the MNA has a message for legislators. "We're going to be asking, 'What side are you on?' "

Later, Stern told The Eagle ongoing negotiations aren't going so well between the Greenfield nurses and hospital officials there.

"We might have to go on strike again," she said.

Sandra Vosburgh told the group she was "hurt and angry" that the lockout prevented her from checking on the babies in her care. And Kevin Towle, a candidate for the 1st Berkshire District said the hospital was "putting profits over people and greed over safety."

Audre Sadlowski, a BMC nurse for 45 years, said it was painful for her to see the company's CEO, David Phelps, welcoming the temporary nurses in person.

"I've never met him," she said.

Harley Keisch said it was a hard day for he and his fellow nurses.

"We feel like it's our hospital and our patients," he said. "And it's in [the hospital's] hands to do the right thing."

From the looks of the trash, it was a day of much coffee drinking. Many picketers had been up since the wee hours.

Sandra Wesolowski, a BMC nurse for more than 30 years, was turned away with the others when trying to report for work at 7 a.m.

She said losing a week's pay was nothing compared to what this fight was about: "The community and patients."

"I'm not sorry we did it," she said. "It's a human cause."

Staff writer Heather Bellow contributed to this report.

Reach staff writer Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247 or @BE_pleboeuf.


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