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BMC Nurses Decry Hospital Staffing Shortages Amid COVID Surge

A sign with directions for various departments of a hospital stands at a crossroads
Josh Landes
The main sign at Berkshire Medical Center's Pittsfield, Massachusetts campus.

Unionized nurses at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts are at odds with the hospital’s management over what they call an understaffing issue.

Nurses at the county’s largest hospital say months of concerns about staffing levels were confirmed with a surge of patients on New Year’s Eve. RN Mark Brodeur – a member of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the state’s largest nurses’ union – says the hospital initiated an emergency protocol that required all staffers to remain on the job no matter what with little guidance.

“There wasn't much communication other than that, like what you were supposed to do, or what was happening, or why," he told WAMC. "We definitely needed more leadership in that situation to say why we were staying, what we needed to do, what we were looking for or what was happening.”

The MNA described the incident as “insane and unsafe,” mixing COVID patients among non-COVID patients, and accused the hospital of not trying to bring in additional staff. Brodeur says the moment underscored deep frustrations among the nurses.

“In the spring, there was a lot of stress, but we had a lot of extra staff. We had, they did hire a lot of travelers in the springtime. So we didn't have the shortages we had now," he explained. "Right now you're taking care of more patients than we did in the spring, and they're more complicated. They're facing more challenges. I mean, even just trying to call a family member back sometimes can take hours because you're at the bedside, because you need to be with the patient.”

While COVID rates remain high, visitation restrictions can leave patients unable to see their families while they grapple with the disease.

“It hurts us to see not only patients suffering and ill with, you know, a really tough illness," said Brodeur. "And it's, it's hard. And there are there are shifts that go by where you do everything you can and you just barely keep the patient stable. And then you have multiple of those patients and it's just- It's very overwhelming.”

The nurses, who have had all of their vacations canceled after New Year’s Eve, want the hospital to bring in more travelling nurses, offer bonuses to nurses who volunteer for extra shifts and institute a text-based system for alerting staffers about scheduling issues – all requests they say BMC has rejected.

“We know that members of the MNA Bargaining Committee are upset that we rejected a proposal for additional cash compensation in the form of bonuses for extra shifts in addition to their regular pay and overtime," said hospital spokesperson Michael Leary. “But hospitals across the state during the pandemic have implemented layoffs and other cost-reduction measures, and here at Berkshire Health Systems, we have been determined to make thoughtful, careful changes to our operations in order to prioritize our employees and retain jobs.”

Leary acknowledged the New Year’s Eve surge and characterized it as just one of the many challenges the hospital has faced during the pandemic, tying it to community spread during the holidays.

“We’re currently in the middle of a very significant surge in cases," he told WAMC. "We’re caring for more confirmed COVID-positive patients in our hospitals than ever before. Patients are experiencing shorter length of stay in the hospital, averaging of 7-8 days, which is different from the beginning of the pandemic when the length of stay was much longer and the cases were far more acute and critical. But we’re also admitting, treating and releasing four times the number patients than we did in March, and our COVID unit has not seen fewer than 30 inpatients in several weeks.”

Brodeur says accepting the situation as the status quo is a dangerous norm for the hospital to embrace.

“They’re just going to wait for something to happen and then do something at that time with whatever they have," he said. "Essentially, the staff that we have just have to work harder. We have to just do what we can. But planning-wise, it just seems like that's not the best solution, especially since this is our community. These are our relatives, our neighbors. We want to make sure that we're prepared, opposed to just sort of waiting to see what happens.”

The MNA declined to specify how many more nurses they’d like to see BMC hire in addition to the 750 currently employed by the hospital.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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