NORWICH — Nurses at Backus Hospital in Norwich began a two-day strike at 7 a.m. today as contract negotiations between the union and the hospital reached an impasse.
A few hundred nurses picketed in the pouring rain, holding signs that read “Nurses Strike for Unfair Labor Practice” and “Honk if You Love Nurses.”
The hospital and nurses had 22 negotiating sessions, the most recent beginning at 10 a.m. on Sunday and lasting more than 10 hours.
According to Sherri Dayton, president of the Backus Federation of Nurses, the Sunday negotiating session ended with the hospital’s lawyer telling the union negotiating team that the management representatives did not have the authority to negotiate further on wage increases.
The hospital’s current offer includes a 12.5 percent increase in wages for all nurses, plus additional paid time off for 82 percent of the nursing staff.
In a statement, Donna Handley, president of Backus Hospital, said that the hospital had “worked to reach an agreement that advances our nurses and increases wages and benefits.”
According to Dayton, that offer still doesn’t compare with wages paid by Windham Hospital, which are on average 14 percent more than those at Backus, or at L&M Hospital, where the wages are 16 percent more.
But Dayton reiterated that the problem wasn’t fundamentally about money, but about the resulting staffing shortages. She said that nurses won’t stay at Backus because they can get better pay at hospitals elsewhere in the region.
“It’s about getting competitive wages so we don’t keep hemorrhaging nurses out the back end,” she said.
A number of nurses in multiple units who spoke with CT Examiner said that they have been dealing with staffing shortages. Corrinne Eichelberg, a nurse in the progressive care unit who has worked at Backus Hospital for three years, said that the nurses she trains in her unit often don’t stay around after their residency.
“They come out of nursing school — we have a great residency program — they finish and move on,” said Eichelberg.
Donna Perry, a nurse in labor and delivery who has worked at Backus for 21 years, said her unit has been understaffed for years. According to Perry, the problem has gotten worse since Windham Hospital suspended its Labor and Delivery program in early July, spurring more patients to seek care at Backus.
Perry, who is also a member of the core negotiation team, said there sometimes weren’t enough nurses on a shift to handle the women in labor, let alone the mothers who had already delivered babies. Perry said that the nurses were also frequently required to work overtime, adding an additional four hours to a regular 12-hour shift.
According to Dayton, the union and the hospital had tentatively agreed on a proposal that would create a committee which would meet monthly to address staffing needs, and to another proposal that would provide nurses with rooms where they can breastfeed.
She said that although employee health care has been a point of contention in the negotiations, the union was prepared to accept the hospital’s health insurance offer, a Tier 2 Aetna plan which, she said, was not as good as their previous plan. The hospital also offered a two-percent reduction in premiums, according to Dayton, but the new plan would raise both the deductible and the co-pay. She also said that the plan wouldn’t doesn’t cover a number of mental health services.
Dayton also said that last week the hospital changed its PPE policy, allowing nurses to receive a new mask every shift, after nurses complained of having to store used N-95 masks in brown paper bags because the hospital did not provide new ones until they were soiled or compromised.
A number of legislators and union leaders spoke at a rally beginning at 9 a.m. outside of the hospital. They praised the nurses for their hard work during the pandemic and condemned what they claimed was the hospital’s unwillingness to negotiate a fair wage.
“When the time comes to check [on] a patient,” said Congressman Joe Courtney, “it’s not the top brass who go into that room, it’s the nurses that go into that room and put themselves at risk.”
“This is the time we should be pulling together and getting the job done,” Courtney said.
“What a disgrace we have here at Backus Hospital!” said State Rep. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who pointed out that the hospital had hired armed security guards to keep the striking nurses out of the facility.
“I just don’t think it’s right,” Osten later told CT Examiner.
“We have to start recognizing that Backus is one of the most profitable hospitals in the state of Connecticut,” said Osten. “They can afford to pay their workers a living wage.”
According to a report released by the Connecticut Office of Health Strategies, a state agency tasked with implementing data-driven health care strategies, Backus hospital generated $33.1 million in profit in fiscal year 2019. The hospital also has a five-year operating margin of over 15 percent, according to the report, the largest in the state.
Hartford HealthCare Chief Operating Officer Jeffery Flacks told the Hartford Courant in May that the company was operating at 30 percent of its usual revenue because of COVID. The company, which owns Backus Hospital, received $62 million in federal aid.
State Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said that in December, Connecticut hospitals had received a settlement of over $1 billion from the state, and that hospitals had also received federal and state funding as compensation for the financial impact of COVID-19.
According to Dayton, no further negotiations have scheduled at this time. “We told them … the ball’s in your court, and it’s your turn to move,” said Dayton.