The Massachusetts St. Vincent Hospital nurses cast an overwhelming vote on Monday to ratify a new contract, which officially ends the nurses' historic strike (301 days long) and clears the path for the hospital to begin recalling nurses to provide care to patients and fully reopen the hospital beds to address the Omicron surge, according to a Massachusetts Nursing Association press release.
The secret ballot vote was held throughout the day on January 3rd, 2022, with nurses announcing the outcome at a press conference following the final vote count. The result: a landslide victory for the nurses, with a final tally of 487 – 9 in favor of ratification. In all 502 ballots were cast, with three ballots left blank and three contested ballots.
On Dec. 17, the 285th day of their historic strike for safer patient care, the 700 nurses reached a tentative agreement with Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare that guarantees striking nurses the right to return to their original positions, and provides the staffing improvements the nurses need to end the strike and re-enter the hospital to provide care to their community in the face of an emerging new surge of COVID-19 driven by the Omicron variant.
The agreement was reached after two weeks of discussions with federal mediators, and finally settled at an in-person session, which was mediated by U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. It comes after two years of negotiations and more than 43 negotiating sessions. It followed what is now the longest nurses strike nationally in over 15 years and the longest nurses strike in Massachusetts history, with more than nine months of picketing, community rallies and marches, tremendous support from federal, state, and municipal public officials who rallied to the nurses' cause. The strike also garnered the support of faith-based, social justice and labor organizations and their members not only from across the state but from across the world.
The final component of the agreement reached at the final session was a "back to work" provision, which guarantees all nurses who went out on strike the right to return to work in the same position, hours, and shift that they worked prior to the strike, while providing a process for the parties to follow in recalling the nurses back to work. Under the agreement, the hospital will have 30 days following ratification to recall all nurses back to the hospital to provide care.
The new contract includes improvements in staffing on a number of units sought by the nurses, including enforceable staffing grids and the following specifics:
- A limit of four-patient assignments on the hospital's cardiac post-surgical unit. Prior to the strike these nurses were often assigned five patients, with no ability to reduce an assignment based on the needs of the patients.
- A mix of four- and five-patient assignments on the seven other medical-surgical and telemetry floors, including a limit of four patient assignments on the day and evening shift on the two cardiac telemetry floors. Prior to the strike, these nurses were assigned five patients nearly every day and every shift, with no ability to reduce an assignment based on the needs of the patients.
- No more than five patients assigned to each nurse on the behavioral health unit. Prior to the strike these nurses including the resource nurse were regularly assigned six patients.
- The tentative agreement also includes improvements in the Resource Nurse assignment on many units. Resources nurses provide an additional nurse on the unit who is there to assist with the flow of patients on and off the unit, to provide helping hands to a nurse with a complex patient, or to take on a patient assignment to ensure other nurses have a safer patient load. Resource nurse assignment improvements include:
- No assignment in the intensive care unit, progressive care unit, cardiac step-down, emergency department, post-anesthesia care unit, operating room, endoscopy and maternity unit;
- 0-2 patient limit for outpatient oncology, and;
- A reduced assignment for the day and evening shift on the behavioral health unit.
- The agreement also includes language that limits the hospital's ability to flex nurses, a controversial process where a nurse can be sent home when the employer determines he or she is not needed, which too often has left the nurses still working with unsafe patient assignments after an influx of admissions later in the shift.
While staffing improvements were made in the majority of the patient units the nurses are very clear that work remains in other areas including the maternity unit as well as the emergency department.