Nurses Picketing Tenet-Owned St. Vincent Hospital Over COVID Working Conditions

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The following is a press release from the Massachusetts Nurses Association Submitted to SOURCE media. Tenet, based in Dallas, Texas, also owns Framingham Union Hospital/MetroWest Medical Center. Photo used will report from istock

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WORCESTER – As patient care conditions continue to deteriorate at Worcester-based St. Vincent Hospital, the 740 registered nurses are stepping up their efforts to alert the public and to pressure their for-profit employer of the need to increase staffing levels to better protect their patients during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.  

Starting today, January 6, a contingent of nurses from the hospital will commence daily picketing outside the facility until an agreement is reached with recalcitrant administrators to place the safety of patients ahead of the Dallas-based corporation’s primary concern of boosting profit margins for shareholders.

This the decision to hold this ongoing demonstration follows an early, larger protest on Dec. 1, when more than 400 nurses participated in an information picket to protest the same conditions. 

Since then, the nurses have held three negotiating sessions with management in the hopes of reaching an agreement to improve the conditions, with no success. 

Between the first picket and the last meeting with management on Jan. 5, nurses have filed more than 45 official reports of staffing conditions that threatened the health and safety of their patients, bringing the nine-month total of such reports for the full period of the pandemic to over 400. 

“As nurses, we are legally and morally obligated to advocate for our patients to ensure they are safe and receive the care they deserve,” said Marlena Pellegrino, RN, a frontline nurse at the hospital and chair of the nurses local bargaining unit with the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA). “We have tried for months to convince our administration and the Tenet corporation to provide us with the resources we need to keep the public safe, yet they only make things worse.  Now we are taking to the streets once again, this time on a daily baisis, to alert the public and the community of our concerns as they have the most to lose if Tenet doesn’t alter its dangerous practices – our patients lives are on the line.”

 For months, nurses have been struggling to care for patients without appropriate staffing levels, adequate personal protective equipment, and in the wake of furloughs and daily staff reductions that have left them unable to provide the care and attention patients, particularly desperately ill COVID-19 infected patients require. 

By contrast, registered nurses also represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association at UMass Memorial Healthcare at the Memorial and University hospital campuses have been able to negotiate comprehensive agreements to address nurses concerns about how to safely care for COVID patients.

The St. Vincent nurses concerns have been documented in real time as nurses have filed more than 400 reports to management citing staffing and patient care conditions that they believed threatened the safety of their patients. 

Nurses have also sent personal emails to management and confronted the hospitals’ recalcitrant CEO with their concerns on her visits to hospital units.  Other efforts to move to Tenet to improve care include:

  • More than 70 percent of nurses signed a petition in February calling for safer staffing levels and an end to management’s punitive treatment of nurses, and this was before the onset of the pandemic.
  • In March, more than 200 nurses from every unit and every shift attended a negotiation session with management to provide alarming personal testimony about the impact current staffing levels were having on patient care, with numerous nurses describing conditions at the hospital as a “travesty…disgraceful…and shameful.” 
  • In May, after management implemented a furlough of staff, implemented daily staffing cuts (a process referred to as flexing staff) and other negative staffing practices, the nurses cast an overwhelming vote of “no confidence” in hospital CEO Carolyn Jackson and her management team.
  • As a result of these conditions, over the last nine months, more than 100 nurses have left the facility for other hospitals with better conditions, pay and benefits. 

Still, management has done little or nothing to address nurses’ concerns.  In fact, as nurses now prepare for the second surge, the hospital has refused to put in place standards of care, such as the creation of COVID specific units with strict limits on nurses patient assignments to no more than three patients that were in place during the first surge.  They have also laid off secretaries and other support staff, thus exacerbating an already dangerous practice environment. 

Unlike most other hospitals in the state, St. Vincent is also withholding appropriate personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, forcing nurses to reuse these masks up to three times before providing a new mask. 

The reuse of N95 masks violates accepted infection control standards, and can compromise the integrity of the masks, thus increasing risk of exposure.

“Our nurses have been sacrificing for our patients, family and communities throughout this pandemic,” said Dominique Muldoon, a nurse who worked on the COVID floor during the first surge and serves as co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit.  “Nurses have moved out of their homes or isolated from loved ones. Our members have been exposed or infected with this virus in our efforts to provide care to these very sick patients.  Our members have born witness to unbearable suffering and been the only ones with patients, serving as the conduit of all communication with families as they watched their loved ones die.  For nurses, this is our duty and our obligation, and all that we ask is to be treated with respect and to be given the resources to perform this noble work.”

While nurses call for improved staffing levels, adequate PPE and the pay and benefits they need to recruit and retain the staff they need to meet the challenges of the pandemic, Tenet Healthcare’s focus has been on cutting corners and recouping revenue to boost their bottom line, expecting nurses and patients to pay the price for their decisions.  

Back in April, Tenet’s corporate leaders in Dallas touted their plan to use furloughs and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars from the federal stimulus package to “to ensure we were focused on maximizing our cash position” – not to improve care for patients. Tenet reported they had $500 million “cash in hand” and access to a $1 billion line of credit, according to the Dallas Morning News.  

Tenet has received more than $1.6 billion in loans and grants from the federal government as part of the CARES Act. Tenet has made more than $1 billion in profits in the first three quarters of 2020, and Tenet’s Chief Executive Officer Ron Rittenmeyer was paid more than $24 million in 2019, and the chain’s president and chief operating officer Saum Sutaria was paid nearly $14 million.

Nurses believe that Tenet can easily afford to provide the improvements the nurses are seeking, but the nurses see the decisions being made on the local level being driven by corporate heads in Dallas. 

Nurses view St. Vincent CEO Carolyn Jackson, a chemical engineer by training with no prior experience in caring for patients, as a willing tool for Tenet corporate management in Texas. 

“Tenet is a for profit healthcare conglomerate, and we cannot stand by while they take advantage of a global pandemic to, in the words of their Dallas-based CEO. ‘maintain a strong cash position.’ The voices of our bedside nurses must be heard,” explained Marie Ritacco, RN, a nurse in the Post Anesthesia Care Unit and Vice President of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.   “We hold that patient care and the safety of the caregivers must be prioritized before profits going to Dallas and Tenet’s shareholders. We will do everything in our power to shed sunlight on the decisions we believe fail to protect our patients, our community, and our families.”

The 740 nurses of St. Vincent Hospital are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association and have spent more than a year in negotiations with management for a new contract that would include the staffing improvements nurses need to provide safe patient care, as well as improvements in pay and benefits to compete with other hospitals in the region. 

Contract talks are set to resume on Jan. 21, with the help of a Federal Mediator. 

editor

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