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Nurses at Backus Hospital Schedule a Two-Day Strike as COVID Cases Jump for Norwich Region

NORWICH — Nurses at Backus Hospital in Norwich are prepared to strike next week if the union and the hospital cannot come to an agreement over a new contract. 

The Backus Federation of Nurses, part of the local AFT, gave notice on October 2 that the strike is scheduled to last from 7 a.m. on October 13 until 7 a.m. on October 15. 

Sherri Dayton, president of the Backus Federation of Nurses, said that the negotiations had been “a nightmare.” 

“Tonight’s negotiation will be negotiation number twenty,” said Dayton, who has been a nurse in Backus’ emergency department for 16 years. 

In a video released by the hospital in response, Donna Handley, president of Backus Hospital, said that she was “deeply, deeply disappointed in the nurses’ notification of a two-day strike.” 

News of a possible strike comes as cases of COVID-19 in Norwich have spiked — last week, the state Department of Health published an alert urging city residents to stay home as much as possible and avoid indoor gatherings. Norwich has reported 133 cases since September 26 and has an infection rate of 24 per 100,000 people, the highest in the state. 

“The community needs us now more than ever with the increasing COVID-19 cases,” said Handley, “This is a time to join together in the fight against COVID.” 

The union’s most recent contract with the hospital and with Hartford HealthCare, the hospital’s parent company, was extended past a May deadline, but expired in July. 

The union voted to strike on September 13. 

Dayton said that out of the more than 400 members in the union, about 80 percent of the members showed up to vote, and 88 percent voted in favor of the strike. 

Among the union requests is a pay raise from $29.59 per hour to $31.78 per hour as a starting salary and from $50.50 to $50.77 per hour for senior nurses. 

Dayton said that nurses at Backus Hospital are paid 14 percent less than those at Windham Hospital in Willimantic, also owned by Hartford HealthCare.  

According to data from the Connecticut Department of Labor, the average entry wage for registered nurses in the Norwich-New London area as of the first quarter of 2020 was $31.84 per hour, slightly lower than the statewide hourly entry wage of $31.93.  

Dayton, however, said that the major issue isn’t wages, but staffing. Even before the pandemic, she said, the hospital had a 25 to 35 percent vacancy rate for positions at the hospital. She said that although the hospital has made an effort to hire new staff, nurses continue to leave for better pay at other hospitals.

“I don’t blame these nurses for doing that,” said Dayton. “But it’s detrimental to our community and our patients in this area, because then we’re constantly having a huge turnover rate and we’re not being able to retain people.”  

In an open letter, Handley responded that “while other healthcare employers have laid off or furloughed nurses and other staff, throughout the pandemic Backus Hospital was able to retain jobs and provide staff with additional paid time off and other support including housing and a colleague assistance fund.”

According to Dayton, nurses at the hospital have had to reuse items like N-95 masks, which are only meant for up to eight hours of use. She said that nurses have been storing their N-95 masks in brown paper bags until they become visibly soiled. 

Dayton also said that she is aware of at least 20 cases of nurses who have become infected with COVID and that she suspects there are many more.  Dayton said that the hospital does not provide updates on the number of COVID cases among staff members. 

Dayton said that she feels that upper management has been disrespectful of nurses, at times even implying that the nurses were negligent with PPE. 

Jessica Harris, the union’s vice president, said she agreed with Dayton’s assessment.

“I believe the disrespect is what’s holding up this contract,” said Harris, who has also worked in the Backus Hospital Emergency Department for 16 years. 

In the letter, Handley said that the hospital was “deeply committed to come to a reasonable and fair agreement on a new contract.”

“As a nurse myself,” she wrote, “I have tremendous respect for our nurses and all that they do.”  

Handley vowed to work “around the clock” to find a resolution. 

Dayton said that while holding a strike during a pandemic was a difficult decision, she said that ultimately it was a way to ensure that patients are getting the best possible care.  

“This is how I see it,” said Dayton, “For a really long time, this community has suffered because of the short staffing and haven’t gotten the best care that they should be getting.”

“We do not want to strike,” said Harris. “And the fact that COVID is on the rise in our area makes it that much more stressful.”

“We want to be there for our patients, our co-workers, our community,” she added.

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