BMC, nurses log two long days of talks ahead of planned strike

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PITTSFIELD — As night fell Wednesday, bargaining teams for Berkshire Medical Center and its registered nurses remained secluded in a downtown Pittsfield hotel, working for a second straight day in a bid to avert a Monday strike.

While a breakthrough remained possible, the hospital was continuing to refine plans to replace its RNs for five days next week.

As of 9 p.m., neither side had reported significant progress in the talks.

After the union issued a strike notice following negotiations June 4, a federal mediator asked both parties to continue bargaining.

They gathered Tuesday for about 10 hours and returned Wednesday.

"We were in negotiations yesterday and continue today and tonight," Michael Leary, the BMC spokesman, said Wednesday afternoon. "We don't know what will happen after tonight."

A sticking point in the talks, which began after the contract lapsed in September 2016, is staffing levels.

Members of the local bargaining committee for the Massachusetts Nurses Association said they gathered Tuesday hoping that negotiators for BMC would improve their offer in terms of staffing levels, which nurses say are affecting the quality of patient care.

Through months of negotiations, the hospital has pointed to its high ratings on care and said it needs to retain decision-making over staffing.

The nurses' committee said it offered a counterproposal Tuesday to add a year to the next contract, a feature that has been requested by the hospital. The MNA team said it also sought Tuesday to convey to management its willingness to accept a premium increase in one type of health insurance, under certain conditions.

The hospital is asking RNs to pay the same premiums as all hospital employees.

"We mutually agreed to continue bargaining on Wednesday," the committee said in a statement provided to The Eagle. "Our nurses have spoken loud and clear about the need for improved staffing conditions in our contract. We are united behind that effort because we care."

Wednesday's meeting was the 44th bargaining session to date since a previous contract lapsed. Nurses have continued to work under most terms in the earlier pact, as federal law requires.

Though nurses plan to strike for one day, as they did Oct. 3, the hospital says its contract with U.S. Nursing Corp. again requires replacement RNs to be on the job for a minimum of five days.

Employee action

This week, employees at BMC held a rally calling on nurses to come to terms with the hospital — and avoid a strike. An organizer presented the MNA bargaining committee with petitions containing 359 signatures before the start of Tuesday's talks.

Becky Armstrong, a coordinator of ambulatory services, said she brought a stack of petitions with 345 names to the Pittsfield hotel before talks started Tuesday and gave them to a representative with the MNA.

"I was happy that they took them," Armstrong said.

She said she emailed an additional 14 signatures to the union Wednesday. "People still wanted to be heard," Armstrong said of the added names.

The fact that the hospital and nurses were at the table late Wednesday pleased her.

"We're happy to hear that they're still talking. That's a good sign," Armstrong said.

At least two members of the City Council who have, in the past, supported the nurses' staffing requests might also weigh in anew.

John Krol Jr. of Ward 6, the council's vice president, said he and Councilor Helen Moon, of Ward 1, hope to secure a meeting with David E. Phelps, the CEO and president of Berkshire Health Systems Inc.

"Councilor Moon and I are committed to finding a way to make safe staffing happen at Berkshire Medical Center," Krol said Wednesday.

Moon could not be reached for comment.

Meantime, signs began to go up around the hospital this week reading: "Find your voice. Support and save Berkshire Medical Center."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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