WORCESTER, Mass.—Nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester voted almost unanimously Jan. 3 to ratify a contract and end their 301-day strike.
The vote was 487-9 in favor, with three blank ballots and three contested, according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association. The five-year pact will be retroactive to January 2021.
“The strike was over one issue — staffing,” Dominique Muldoon, cochair of the nurses’ bargaining committee, told a press conference outside Teamsters Local 170’s union hall after the result was announced. “We have achieved improvements in key areas.”
The agreement, according to the MNA, includes enforceable staffing limits, the union’s main demand. Specifically, nurses on the hospital’s cardiac post-surgical unit will be assigned no more than four patients at a time. Before the strike, they were often assigned five, with no ability to reduce that number if individual patients needed more care.
Nurses on the seven other medical-surgical and telemetry floors will get a mix of four- and five-patient assignments, with a limit of four on the day and evening shifts on the two cardiac telemetry floors. Nurses on the behavioral health unit, who were regularly assigned six patients before the strike, will get no more than five.
The contract also limits the hospital’s ability to “flex” nurses, to send them home during a shift if management determines they are not needed. Nurses complained that the hospital often flexed nurses during the peak of the pandemic in 2020, leaving the ones still on duty swamped when more patients were admitted.
The union said staffing improvements still need to be made in other areas, including the maternity unit and the emergency department.
“We will now work to make progress in all areas inside the building and hope Tenet leadership commits to do the same,” MNA vice president Marie Ritacco, a member of the nurses’ negotiating committee, said in a statement.
The contract agreement, between the MNA local and the Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare chain, was reached Dec. 17 after an all-day session mediated by Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. The main sticking point for the previous three months had been the union’s demand for a standard “back to work” clause, in which striking nurses had the right to return to the same position, hours, and shift they had before, versus management’s insistence on retaining strikebreakers and having them replace strikers.
The clause was included in the final version.
“We negotiated the right of every nurse to return…” Muldoon declared, and was interrupted by applause.
The walkout by 700 nurses, which began March 8, was the longest nurses’ strike in Massachusetts history and the longest nurses’ strike nationally in more than 15 years. The hospital will have 30 days to recall everyone.
The deal also includes provisions to protect nurses from being assaulted on the job. It requires a police detail on duty in the emergency department during the night shift seven days a week and on all three shifts on weekends and holidays.
Pay was not the main issue in the strike, but nurses will receive 2% raises for each year of the deal, retroactive to January 2021, plus a mix of step increases, bonuses, and retroactive pay from 2020. Part-time nurses who put in enough hours to qualify will pay less for health care: Tenet will pay 80% of the premium, up from 65% under the previous contract. That gives St. Vincent part-time nurses parity with those working at UMass Memorial Medical Center, one of the two other hospitals in Worcester.
“Your victory tonight was a victory for the people of Worcester,” Mayor Joseph Petty told the crowd. Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) said everyone in the city owes the nurses a debt of gratitude, “because this strike was about patient safety.”
Marlena Pellegrino, a 35-year nurse at the hospital and cochair of the local bargaining unit, praised “the grit and determination of every nurse who walked that line, day in and day out, through four seasons, 18 hours a day, in snow, pouring rain, through blazing heat and stifling humidity — all for the good of our community.”
“Our eyes are focused on the future, on returning to our home, to the hospital bedside to do what we love the most, which is to provide the high-quality care our patients expect and deserve,” she added.