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Nurses in Worcester, MA, Strike over Unsafe Conditions and Staffing

Hundreds of nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, MA, are on strike, demanding better conditions. This week, Left Voice correspondents visited their picket line, spoke and interviewed striking nurses.

Left Voice

March 17, 2021
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Image: Leo Zino

About 800 nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, are on strike, demanding safer staffing ratios and better working conditions. While the mainstream media has been echoing the cries of Dallas-based Tenet Health CEO, Carolyn Jackson, Left Voice wanted to show our support for the nurses’ struggle and to allow their voices to be heard. We visited their strike headquarters, a block away from the hospital. Here the nurses can warm up and organize their struggle. Anyone can walk in, sign in, grab some hot coffee, and buy a poster to show their support. We encourage everyone in the area to accompany the striking nurses on their picket line.

Strike center at St. Vincent Hospital

We walked toward the hospital and met a group of nurses on the picket line, and they shared with us the reasons behind the strike.

How did the strike begin?

Nurse 1: We’re here because we think it’s important for our patients to get the best care possible, and right now we’re not able to do that taking care of so many patients at once. You’re not able to be in the 10 different places that you want to be at one time, and it’s hard to manage care at this point. It’s something that we’re standing up for right now, and we’re making the right decision to be out here on strike.

It was very hard to make the decision to come on strike. You go back and forth in your brain about it all the time, but at the end of the day, this is the right decision. The past year that we’ve had, the struggles we’ve seen with patients, just everything with Covid. So this was absolutely the right thing to do for us.

How did Covid affect your decision to go on strike?

Nurse 1: Things were bad before Covid, and Covid just made everything worse, and then it continued to get worse for us — you know, the struggle with PPE every day and the struggle with making sure that there was enough staff to care for the sick Covid patients. People struggled to stay extra to make sure that patients are actually cared for when, you know, the hospital wasn’t caring enough to have the staff that was needed. We were there. We cared, and then, you know, when Covid got a little bit better, the struggles were still there.

I mean, what they don’t say is that [even though] Tenet [the Bosses] says staffing was OK, it’s not. They’ve been offering incentive pay for months now to try to get more staffing, and that’s not talked about at all. So staffing is one of the biggest issues, along with the safety of our patients. I mean, just the PPE, the way that they had us do it during Covid wasn’t safe. We’d hang it in the hallways where everyone would be walking by it. We kept our masks in our Tupperware containers and reused them for weeks at a time like nothing about it was safe and now, like even today, we ask for staffing for one to ones, we ask for, you know, a secretary and that’s too much to ask for sometimes.

Why do you think management is being so hard about such a basic demand?

Nurse 2: They want to make a profit. It looks bad when we can’t accept patients because we say that we can’t safely take care of them. The more patients, the more money. When we limit how many patients we can take care of, it limits the amount of money they can make. They don’t see it as patient care, they see it as the bottom dollar. How many patients can we get in every day, every week, and how fast can we discharge them. It doesn’t matter if it’s safe, it doesn’t matter if your grandmother or grandfather or confused family member has someone to watch over them like a one to one. It doesn’t matter if they are jumping out of bed and possibly falling on the floor. It’s about how many patients can we fit in one building at a time. We want to care about the safety of your family members, you know, your parents, grandparents. We look at more than just the numbers. We look at the safety, so that’s kind of where we separate.

What would you say to nurses around the country who are facing the same problems?

Nurse 2: It’s been two years in the making, and we finally came together as a group and realized it’s not going to get better unless we stand up for ourselves. So we decided as a group of 800 nurses to take a stand and protect our patients, and if it means striking … What people don’t understand is that we are working with our coworkers and our patients more than we see our own family. So we care about our patients. So for us to be out here, it’s a big deal. We’re not getting paid. Half of us don’t qualify for unemployment because we have per diem somewhere else, so we’re not getting paid. We’re doing this for our patients. It took two years, but we’re doing it.

You’ve been striking for a week. How long are you willing to continue the strike?

Nurse 2: As long as it takes. We’re just waiting for the hospital to break because it’s not going to be us. So we’re waiting for them to break and give us another offer.

How is the strike going? Is the community behind you? Are you making any progress?

Nurse 2: The community is behind us, but it’s kind of been a standstill for a week. We haven’t heard anything from the hospital. We haven’t said anything, so really nothing has happened over the past week.

Anything else you want to add?

Nurse 3: What we’re asking for is not unreasonable. If you look at California, that is their standard of care: it is four to one. In the Med-Surg Telemetry areas and Cardiac Step Down, like we are, it is three to one. If we had better ratios, we would be able to catch things sooner so patients don’t have to come back as often. We could treat them full and through instead of just putting a Band-Aid on something and hope for the best. We don’t get to do that now because it’s a rush to get them in and out, and then they’re back a week later with the same symptoms. Ratios definitely do play a part in the care and continuity of patient care.

I‘ve read that they’re bringing in scabs. How do you feel about them coming here and trying to break your strike?

Nurse 3: They’re really in it for the money. There’s absolutely no connection to the patient. I know myself there are patients in there when I left on Sunday that I knew would still be there on Monday, and I was concerned about how they would do, you know, because these patients become like family to you. You care about their health and wealth and making sure that they’re fine, and when someone else is taking care of it for a dollar, they’re not in it for the dedication to the patient. They’re in it for their dollar bills, and they’re getting paid a lot, and we’re not out here for the money. We’re out here for their safety.

Do you foresee any actions to try to stop these scabs from trying to break your strike?

Nurse 3: No, that’s going to be on them. They’re going to have to see how bad the conditions are and which they have. They just have to be willing to speak out to help us tell the truth about what’s going on inside, so that way the public knows how bad it really is.

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