Threat of Nurses Strike Looms over Down East Community Hospital

 

Will Tuell

Barring a last-minute agreement, a union representing nurses and lab technicians at Down East Community Hospital (DECH) in Machias announced on April 19 that they will be going on strike for two days later this month. The decision comes as the two sides remain at loggerheads over a contract, which expired last October, and follows a late January rally where union members pushed for what they call “safe staffing” levels and better pay. 

“Our nurses and technicians care deeply for our tight-knit community. Our patients are family,” said Roberta Alley, an RN in the infusion clinic and DECH chief nurse representative and negotiator in an April 19 press release. “We are calling a strike because management refuses to offer competitive compensation to recruit and retain permanent staff to provide optimal patient care for our community. This hospital had a total gain in net assets of over $17 million between 2020 and 2022, they can invest in staff and keep our nurses and technicians in our community.”

With the strike set to run from April 30 at 7 a.m. to May 2 at 6:59 a.m. Julie Hixson, DECH’s Director of Marketing and Communications assured the public that patient care would remain the hospital’s top priority even as administrators work to resolve the impasse with their employees. 

“DECH acknowledges the notice of a potential nursing strike and wants to reassure the community that patient care remains our top priority,” Hixson said in an email with this publication last week. “We are actively in negotiations and are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions that support both our staff and our patients.  Our focus remains on providing safe, compassionate, and high-quality care to our community.”

Hixson went on to say that with the threat of a strike looming, DECH has taken steps to provide continued care to its patients, expressing hope that an agreement can be reached beforehand. 

“While contingency plans are in place to address potential strike action, DECH remains hopeful that a resolution can be reached through open dialogue and negotiation,” she said. “Patients and their families can be assured that DECH will continue to provide safe, quality healthcare services.”

The nurses’ union acknowledged that “progress has been made in some areas,” but not enough to avert a strike, MSNA said. 

“The Hospital’s offer of a one percent increase is so disrespectful,” said Joelle Jackson, a medical lab tech and DECH steward and negotiator. “We are talking about nurses and technicians being able to afford to work at the hospital. That’s why we are fighting for a fair contract — so we can stay here and care for our community.”

Hixson countered, saying that union members have seen an almost 40 percent increase in wages since the start of the pandemic. 

“The union chose to provide a strike notice over wage negotiations.  Over the past four years the DECH union members have received unprecedented increases of 40 percent in their wages,” she said. “ We are extremely competitive in our current wages, and to put significantly more money into union compensation would not be financially sustainable for the hospital.  As always, we will continue to negotiate with the union to finalize an agreement.”

MSNA represents nearly 50 nurses and technicians at DECH. The technicians include certified surgical technicians, medical lab technologists/technicians, and cardiopulmonary and imaging technologists.

If no agreement is reached beforehand, the two-day strike will take place across from the hospital entrance at 11 Hospital Drive in Machias. 

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