Dispatch from the nurse strike at Saint Vincent Hospital

"They squeeze every last dime they can"

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The nurses are on full blown strike all right!! I went down to Saint Vincent Hospital this morning to find hundreds of them, decked out in full Massachusetts Nurses Association gear and holding signs rightfully vilifying Tenet, St. V’s ownership company. They walked around the building, talked to the press, and a big Teamsters Union truck was doing laps laying on the horn, something I appreciated except when I was trying to get audio for my interviews with nurses. 

Their demands are simple, and they’ve been making them a very long time. They want a four patients to one nurse ratio, instead of the five-to-one ratio they’re working with now, and better benefits. The high nurse-to-patient ratio puts patients in danger and runs the nurses ragged, which I’m sure is not a hard concept to understand. The company, for their part, refuses to give in to the union demands despite the huge profits it has made off the pandemic. 

So after months and months and months of negotiating, the nurses are doing the damn thing. They’re on strike and they’re going to stay on strike until the company comes back to the table. 

I talked to a bunch of nurses and particularly enjoyed the way ICU nurse Charlotte McKeon cut to the core of the matter. I asked her why she felt the company was so resistant to the union’s demands, and her response was lightning quick.

“Money! Money. They are one of the top companies in the country that made a profit off the pandemic,” she said. “They’ve gotten so much money from the government during the pandemic and we never saw a dime of it. They put it in their pockets. They need to make their stockholders happy so they squeeze every last dime they can out of this hospital.”

This is her holding the sign. 

Let’s investigate that claim, shall we? 

Ah, yes. The company’s stock price has nearly tripled since last March, and all the while they were refusing and scuttling the demands of the MNA. But that’s just stock price. What about profit? The company posted a whopping $414 million profit in the fourth quarter of 2020. A share price increase of almost $4 during that time roundly beat Wall Street analyst projections of a $1.20 increase. 

On top of that, the company received one billion in stimulus funds from the CARES Act and a host of other tax breaks. This from MedPage Today

Tenet has been infused with cash via the CARES Act, including more than $1 billion in stimulus funds, a $1.5-billion Medicare advance and about $67 million returned from Medicare, $60 million in Medicaid grants, and $250 million in this year's Social Security payroll tax match that it has also deferred paying for 18 to 30 months.

Still, per MedPage, the company furloughed 10 percent of its workers in the middle of last year. It furloughed thousands of health care workers in the middle of a pandemic, despite receiving huge support from the government and despite recording immense profits. 

The moral equation here is very clear, and if I can zoom out for a second, it’s my hope that history will look back on health care in this period of American history as a uniquely cruel and cold-blooded institution. Nurses in Worcester are on strike because they are not adequately staffed enough to even respond when patients need help and the company that could easily fix this problem didn’t. It opted instead to triple its share price. Elderly patients in Worcester have broken their hips trying to get up out of their hospital bed because a nurse couldn’t get to them fast enough and this company tripled its share price. 

But I’ll get off my communist soap box for now. Let’s hear from some more of the striking nurses. 

Kilsi Espinosa, a nurse in the cardiac unit and the one in the middle in the above photo, said the company claims to be offering the best contract it has in years, but nurses are leaving St. V’s in droves to work at other hospitals in the area because the pay is better, the benefits are better, and the nurse-to-patient ratio is better. 

“Honestly we’re exhausted training people every six months,” said Espinosa. “Not to mention it’s just unsafe for patients.”

She broke it down for me: Say on a given day you have two cardiac patients and another three patients that need care and you’re also training a new nurse. One of the patients might need extensive attention, they might be confused and need someone there for a longer one-to-one conversation. And you won’t be able to give it to them. 

“It’s kind of hard to divide yourself into five places,” she said. “Put it in an agenda. How is it possible that a nurse can do this?”

Nurses routinely pass on lunch breaks and bathroom breaks to meet the demands, said Lamoy Toban, another nurse in the cardiac unit and the one on the left there.

“We do what we have to do to get the job done, but it shouldn’t be that way,” said Toban. “It’s become the norm that nurses don’t take lunch breaks and it shouldn’t be a norm. It’s become a norm now that we don’t take breaks. Like, what is a break?”

Gift Stewart, the nurse on the right up there, said she worked on the COVID floor, said nurses struggled even to give patients breakfast, especially elderly patients who may need help eating or need someone to sit with them a while. 

“You can’t even take the five minutes to just hold their hand and be the nurse you want to be,” said Steward. “This is why we’re here. Just give us better staffing.”

Toban jumped in.

“That’s not a lot to ask for at all.” 

No it isn’t. Not for a company that recorded $414 million in profit in three months during the middle of a global pandemic. 

I also caught up with some of the union brass.

“We want to see safer staffing, we want more hands on deck, we don’t have the staffing we need to do our work,” said Dominique Muldoon, a nurse at St. V’s and co-chair of the union’s bargaining committee and the one on the left there. 

Nurses simply cannot meet all the demands of their patients at the current staffing levels, she said, and it puts patients in danger. 

On top of that, it leads to high turnover. Muldoon said the hospital is down more than 100 nurses and they’re constantly losing more to other area hospitals that pay better. 

“They have the money to be able to provide the staff. They should be putting the money back in the business,” she said. “This is our community and they need to do the right thing.”

Katie Murphy, president of the MNA and the one on the right there, said more nurses leads to a reduced health care cost. 

“If your oxygen level is falling, and you’re having chest pain, but I have three other patients and everyone is that sick, the numbers don’t work. But if you have one more nurse, and so I have two fewer patients, care is better, the length of stay is less, you get out of the hospital, you don’t have bed sores, you’re not falling,” said Murphy. “Actually, health care costs go down just by having one more nurse on that shift.”

That the nurses have gotten to the point of full-blown striking is historically significant. This is the first time nurses have gone on strike in two decades. In 2000, Saint Vincent nurses first went on strike, and it took 49 days to get their contract. 

Tenet, for its part, does not appear willing to budge. This is what CEO Carolyn Jackson said in a statement. 

“Quality is the cornerstone of everything we do here at Saint Vincent, and our community can be assured that we have taken the appropriate steps to ensure we will be able to remain focused on providing exceptional, safe, quality care to our patients despite the strike action being taken by the MNA. While we still remain hopeful that we can reach an agreement with the MNA for a new contract that is fair and beneficial to both parties, we won’t let anything distract us from our primary mission of doing what is best for our patients.”

And then later after some other bologna: “In fact, the hospital’s staffing guidelines are among the best of all hospitals in Massachusetts. The MNA has been waging a years-long campaign for statewide staffing ratios, but there is no valid research that concludes that staffing ratios improve patient outcomes. Professional medical groups, including other nursing organizations, agree that healthcare decisions are best made by healthcare professionals and nurses at the bedside, not by a union contract. Rigid staffing ratios would dramatically increase emergency room wait times, decrease access to care and delay other lifesaving services. While we continue to hope that the union will accept our generous proposal. Saint Vincent remains fully operational and safe for all members of the community.”

St. V’s said in a statement Monday that they’ve already hired “qualified replacement nurses” AKA scabs, so this certainly seems like they’re digging in for a protracted fight. 

The attempt here in the statement to smear the union, to cast it as the pointless troublemaker that the hospital is forced to work around to provide “exceptional, safe, quality care” is not surprising. Companies hate it when their employees demand more and they love to try and cast a union like it’s some outside agitator and not, you know, the collective will of the employees. But that’s exactly what a union is. It was the nurses at Saint Vincent that voted to go on strike. They are the “nurses at the bedside table” in this cretinous statement. The company’s gotta start listening and, unfortunately, a strike, and how the strike hits the company’s bottom line, is the only way they’re going to listen. 

Stand strong, Saint Vincent nurses. Solidarity forever. 

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I woke up at 6 a.m. to do this story for you and I wouldn’t do that for just anyone, you know. 

If you have a nurse friend consider sharing this with them please and tell ‘em I’m open to any and all juicy gossip on this particular situation, or any situation really. I’m just nosy and I love drama.

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Also of note today is a third community free fridge opening up. The fridge, at 44 Portland Street, joins one at the Bridge on Southbridge Street and one in Main South, outside Fantastic Pizza. The idea behind these fridges is very simple. You stock them if you have food to give and you take the food in the fridge if you need it. It’s not charity, it’s mutual aid, and that’s a very good thing. Best place to stay in the loop on all that at the Instagram pages Worcester Community Fridges and Worcester Free Fridge

I watched Judas and The Black Messiah the other night which is about the murder of Fred Hampton, chair of the Chicago Black Panther Party. In that movie he says something similar about the Panthers’ breakfast program. “It’s not a free turkey on thanksgiving. It’s not charity. Fuck a charity.” Or something like that. That’s how I remember it. Anyway that movie is very good and yeah, fuck a charity. 

That’s all folks buhbyeeeeee