WESTPORT — Ninety workers at St. Vincent’s Behavioral Health have notified management that they plan to strike in protest against a labor practice that they say unfairly mandates workers to take on double shifts with little notice.
The workers threatening to strike are members of two bargaining units, registered nurses and “non-professional” hospital workers, who are part of Connecticut Health Care Associates District 1199.
Nurses and mental health workers at the inpatient mental health facility say they are sometimes asked during their first shift to take on a second shift immediately after — meaning that they come into work expecting an 8-hour shift and end up working 16.
At a press conference on Tuesday, the workers shared their stories about the negative effects that the practice has had on their own health and their ability to care for children and relatives.
Palmer LaValle, a registered nurse who works at the facility, said that people who work night shifts and are mandated to work for 16 hours sometimes have to skip taking medications that make them sleepy or groggy. People working day shifts, Lavalle said, sometimes have to cancel doctor’s appointments at the last minute.
“It’s stressful to come to work and not know when you are going to leave,” said LaValle. “It starts to feel like you can’t leave work at work, you can’t leave home at home. You can’t have a work-life balance. You can’t have that separation.”
LaValle said the practice is a “vicious cycle.” The mandated double shifts, they said, cause workers to leave, which means the facility then needs to mandate more double shifts in order to keep itself staffed.
William Jennings, president of St. Vincent’s Medical Center, said in a statement that management had already agreed to “significant” wage increases and “several operational changes proposed by the union.” The statement did not say anything about the issue of mandatory double shifts.
“Despite our fair and best efforts, the Union’s leadership decided to authorize a strike after a 10-day notification period. We are disappointed in that outcome. We have always believed, and continue to believe, the best path forward for everyone is to work together and find common ground… We look forward to continuing good faith negotiations with the expectation the parties can reach a mutually satisfactory compromise in the near future,” Jennings said in the statement.
A focus on double shifts
Brandon DeBiase, a nurse who has worked at the facility for 12 years, said that the mandated shifts can place the patients at risk, because tired workers may be more likely to commit errors giving patients medication. He also said that the practice places workers at risk if they can’t react quickly in a moment of crisis.
“When it comes down to me being tired on the floor, I need to be quick. I need to be agile. I need to be able to de-escalate,” said DeBiase. “When you’re tired and you’re slow, it could be the difference between getting out of a situation or going for a trip to the emergency room.”
DeBiase, who works nights, is the parent of a five-year-old and a three-year-old. He said the mandated shifts mean that he always has to worry about getting home in time to relieve his babysitter.
DeBiase told CT Examiner that, while he hasn’t been required to take on double shifts in the last year, there was a period when he was asked to work a double every Sunday after working a Saturday night shift. He said he has been written up in the past for refusing a double shift, and that sometimes he will volunteer to take two consecutive shifts in order to avoid being required to work a double shift unexpectedly.
Beyond the logistical challenges, workers said that the last-minute demands made them feel as though the hospital didn’t value their work.
“It just makes you feel like — for want of a better term — a slave … It’s a very condescending experience. You feel like you’re not being respected,” said James Richards, a charge nurse who has worked at St. Vincent’s for 11 years.
Richards described a “hemorrhage” of people leaving the facility, which he said started before COVID, and which he blamed on the attitude of management. Palmer said that five or six workers had left the facility in the last few months.
LaValle is planning to leave St. Vincent’s, largely because of working practices like mandatory overtime, to work at a similar position in a non-Hartford Healthcare facility.
“Safeguards and a framework”
Dave Hannon, president of the local union branch and a former employee at St. Vincent’s, said the mandated shifts had been a problem since he worked at the facility seven years ago. Hannon and DeBiase both said that the union had tried to address the issue in the past, but that Hartford Healthcare did not want to negotiate. DeBiase and Hannon said they felt the COVID pandemic had also exacerbated the situation.
LaValle and Hannon pointed out a 2017 Connecticut law that prohibits “on call” shift scheduling for employees. However, the law has a cutout for unionized employees that prioritizes the collective bargaining agreement.
“I think there need to be safeguards and a framework so that mandatory overtime is always minimized,” said LaValle.
Hannon and two other workers also said that the employees were not being given any extra compensation for working the last-minute double shifts.
Hannon did not offer details regarding the proposals they would take to the bargaining table, but he said there needed to be protections for workers who have childcare obligations or who are struggling with burnout.
Senator Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, who also attended the press conference, said that it was important to stand with workers who are being treated unfairly, particularly given that a few major hospitals now have the majority of control over healthcare in Connecticut and across the country.
“We have to then call out when we see work that’s being done that’s unfair against its employees,” said Duff. “We have to make sure that as elected officials, we stand up for the workers who are here not being treated fairly and with dignity.”
The strike is scheduled to begin Friday, December 17. Hannon said that the union had a planned negotiation session on Wednesday morning with Hartford HealthCare.
“It is fully within their power to avert this strike,” said Hannon. “It’s our intention to negotiate tomorrow until we reach an agreement. It remains to be seen if It is the hospital’s intention to do so as well. My hope is that it is.”