Tenet nurse strike drags on for 8th week as talks yield no progress

Dive Brief:

  • More than 700 nurses at Tenet’s St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, remain on strike after the two sides sat down to their first bargaining session since the work stoppage began March 8. The Monday meeting was futile, and another session has not yet been scheduled.
  • The Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents the nurses, said Tenet came to the table with a proposal that did not address the safer staffing standards nurses raised before going on strike, and ignored guidance given through a federal mediator on what was needed to reach a settlement.
  • St. Vincent CEO Carolyn Jackson said she expects the union to bring a counterproposal to the mediator and request another meeting. ”We are waiting for them to come back to continue discussions, and we will go from there,” she said.

Dive Insight:

The work stoppage has already surpassed a similar one that occurred at St. Vincent over 20 years ago when nurses waged a 49-day strike over their first union contract. It ended when both parties reached a deal brokered by former Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., that resulted in provisions to limit mandatory overtime and produced the hospital’s staffing guidelines currently in place.

Under those terms, one nurse in medical surgical units can be assigned to either four or five patients.

The nurses on strike now are fighting hard to make four patients the maximum. The two sides have been negotiating a new contract since November 2019.

The only change in Tenet’s Monday proposal was the creation of a committee to review staffing levels every quarter, according to MNA.

Right now, California is the only state with mandated ratios of one nurse to five patients in medical surgical units, though MNA in the past has fought, unsuccessfully, for such measures through bills in the state legislature.

The union’s argument is that Tenet can afford to implement such measures, as it turned a $400 million profit in 2020, and another $97 million profit in the first quarter of this year, according to its latest earnings report released Monday.

It’s unclear exactly how much the work stoppage is costing the hospital — Jackson said it is not releasing that information. On the first week of the strike, though, St. Vincent said in a release it spent over $5 million to hire replacement nurses.

MNA said the hospital is paying replacement nurses twice as much as those on strike. Including police detail costs, it estimates the hospital has spent about $45 million so far.

The union took Tenet’s latest proposal back to its members, who were unimpressed, according to a spokesperson, though “our intent is to continue to work with the mediator to see if we can find a way to move things forward in a serious way to achieve a settlement,” they said.

Currently, 730 nurses are out on strike, while 117 have crossed the picket line to return to work, the MNA spokesperson said.

What’s most surprising about the standoff is “the optics of spending so much money on replacement workers,” Rebecca Givan, associate professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University said.

“There’s just massive evidence of how this is not about the ability to afford high quality patient care, the hospital’s just refusing to invest,” she said.