Tenet hospital hiring some replacement nurses permanently 11 weeks into strike

An open-ended strike involving hundreds of nurses at Tenet’s St. Vincent hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, is now in its 11th week. With few prospects for a deal on the horizon, the hospital is moving to permanently hire 50 replacement nurses, it said last week.

Roughly 800 nurses began the work stoppage March 8 over staffing issues they want addressed in their next contract. While staffing has long been a key issue for nurses unions, they contend the pandemic exacerbated it. Workloads and staffing concerns have some looking to leave the profession post-pandemic amid reports of burnout. The Massachusetts Nurses Association and the hospital have been negotiating the new contract for over 17 months.

Throughout the strike, now one of the longest among healthcare workers in recent years, the two sides have only held three rounds of negotiations — on April 27, May 1 and May 5. There are no future sessions scheduled.

“We have received no indication from the MNA that they intend to compromise anytime soon, and it is really not sustainable to have a full complement of temporary replacement nurses for a long duration strike,” hospital CEO Carolyn Jackson said.

Once those roles are filled, 50 nurses on strike won’t have jobs to return to.

Workers waging an economic strike for higher wages, shorter hours or better working conditions lose the right to return to work once their position is permanently filled, though they are put on a “preferential hire list” for the same role if vacancies arise, under the National Labor Relations Act.

Jackson said about half of the postings have applicants, though the hospital can’t extend an offer until at least seven days after they are posted, per the expired collective bargaining agreement. The hospital is posting roles in small batches, and plans to post another 50 “in the not too distant future,” she said.

On Saturday, the nurses held a rally to garner community support following the replacement announcement and were joined by U.S. Reps. James McGovern, D-Mass., and Lori Trahan D-Mass.

They’ve received wide support from other labor unions and public officials, including the Worcester city council and state legislative delegation.

The Massachusetts Building Trades Council delivered a letter to Jackson on April 28 that said it will not send its 75,000 members to the hospital for care until the strike is resolved, according to the union.

“The nurses remain unmoved by Tenet’s unseemly threat, having fully expected Tenet to move in this direction, and see it as yet another desperate attempt to avoid negotiating in good faith with the nurses, while once again demonstrating the for-profit corporation’s complete lack of respect for the nurses and the valuable role they have in protecting the community,” MNA said in a release.

About 700 nurses remain on strike while 140 have crossed the picket line and returned to work. Leading up to the strike, more than 100 nurses left the hospital for roles elsewhere or outside of nursing, according to both the hospital and the union.

“The nurses see no likelihood that the hospital can replace them as the strike has been widely lauded throughout the nursing community across the state and the nation, as the nurses have been held up as being heroes for the stand they are making in the wake of the worst public health crisis in the nation’s history,” MNA said.