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BMC Nurses Picket Claiming Unsafe Staffing Levels

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
Berkshire Medical Center nurses, members of the Massachusetts Nurses Assoc. and others walked up and down the sidewalk outside BMC in Pittsfield, Mass. Wednesday afternoon calling on hospital management to correct what the union calls unsafe staffing levels and a hostile work environment.

Nurses from Berkshire Medical Center picketed outside the Pittsfield hospital this afternoon. They say the hospital is not properly staffed for a patient increase following the closure of North Adams Regional Hospital in March. The hospital continues to refute the claims.With snow blanketing them, members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association and others walked up and down the icy sidewalk Wednesday afternoon carrying signs saying “protect patient safety.” The union also started a petition calling on BMC leadership to take immediate steps to address what the MNA calls unsafe staff levels and a hostile work environment. Diane Romero has been a nurse at BMC for three and a half years.

“I feel my patients are unsafe because I’m kind of spread thin,” said Romero.

The MNA, which represents some 650 registered nurses at BMC, says the hospital has seen a 20 percent patient increase since North Adams Regional closed in March. The union says it got that number from BMC. Hospital spokesman Michael Leary says the figure is closer to 10 percent.

“We know we have experienced a higher volume of patients since the closure, which we had expected would happen and which we planned for very quickly,” said Leary.

BMC owns the former North Adams hospital, where it runs a satellite emergency center. The company has hired 47 registered nurses who used to work at NARH, 19 of whom primarily work at the Pittsfield campus. The rest work in North Adams. Leary says 27 additional registered nurses have been hired to work at BMC’s Pittsfield campus in recent months. Romero says nurses are being told to increase unit turnover, something she says started after NARH closed because there are more patients.

“If there are a lot of people in the emergency room we’re kind of told to kind of ‘hurry it up, get them out any way possible…we need the beds, hurry, hurry, hurry,’” said Romero.

BMC management denies using any bullying tactics toward any of its staff. The union also claims BMC is breaking a recently passed state law capping the patient-to-nurse ratio at 2:1 in intensive care units, based on nurse discretion. Leigh Meola has been a float nurse at BMC for more than a year.

“It’s hard to take care of five critical patients, six critical patients, seven critical patients and give the time that each one needs,” said Meola.

BMC’s Leary says the hospital is in full compliance with the ICU statute.

“We absolutely, emphatically deny any claims that we are not in compliance with the ICU staffing law,” said Leary.

Nurses say there is a lot of tension in the hospital. They say they are stretched too thin. Having worked at the hospital for seven years, Judy Sharp serves on the MNA’s BMC committee. She says union representatives recently met with BMC management.

“We proposed to them bringing in a neutral person or group that can help us develop guidelines and protocols to deal with these situation,” Sharp said to the picketers through a megaphone.

“Management listened and they told us they would get back to us,” continued Sharp, a line that was answered with groans from the crowd.

Pittsfield resident Robin Petell says she is grateful to BMC for helping her survive kidney failure, adding she’s in the hospital every 10 days for migraines. She lent her support to the picketing nurses.

“They just want their patients to be taken care of,” Petell said. “That’s all they want and I can appreciate that.”

The MNA, which represents 100 former NARH workers, has consistently called for the restoration of a full-service hospital in North Adams. A state-commissioned report found such a facility would be sustainable only if it receives federal critical access status, which NARH failed to receive in 2011. BMC has not decided whether to apply.

BMC says the MNA’s picketing is part of an ongoing agenda by the union’s national affiliate National Nurses United.

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