The union that represents registered nurses at both Tufts Medical Center in Boston and Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester notified both health care providers that it plans a one-day strike on May 6th to emphasize the nurses’ demand for higher staffing levels. The nurses threatening to strike at Tufts Medical Center and Saint Vincent Hospital are not the only ones. They join fellow nurses at an increasing number of hospitals nationwide where disputes are erupting over how many patients are assigned to each nurse. While the ratios vary by hospital and by shift, an increasing number of hospitals have reduced staff levels in an effort to cut costs. Many tasks once handled by full-time nurses are now being handled by technicians.
The nurses at Tufts say that by forcing them to care for too many patients, the hospital’s quality of care is being jeopardized. Hospital officials dispute that assertion. The patient to nurse ratios varies depending on the type of unit and the time of day. For example, a pediatric Tufts nurse cares for at least 1.4 critical care patients while a nurse at Mass General takes care of 1.03 patients. The nurses at both hospitals are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
Tufts chief executive Ellen Zane said she believes that the union’s parent organization, the National Nurses United is pushing its national agenda of mandatory patient-to-nurse ratios by encouraging the 24 hour walkouts which will force hospitals to spend millions on replacement workers. “It is hypocritical for the MNA/NNU to claim it cares about patient safety while it authorizes a potential walkout that would cause undue stress on patients and their families,” Zane said in a statement recently. If the Tufts nurses strike, it would be the first nurses strike at a Boston hospital in 25 years, since the Carney Hospital nurses walked off in 1986. The union must give management 10 days notice before a one day strike. If they take such action, Zane will not allow them to return to work for five days because it doesn’t make sense to hire and train hundreds of temporary nurses for one day. The strike could cost the hospital as much as $4.2million dollars.
Chuck Idelson, a spokesman for the national union, denies that state and national union leaders have had a role in the Massachusetts disputes. Idelson points out those nurses’ workloads are a preeminent issue for nurses throughout the US. More hospitals are being run by firms whose focus is on the bottom line rather than the service they are supposed to be providing to patients.