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Berkshire Visiting Nurse Association employees call on administrators to voluntarily recognize union push

A group of masked nurses hold up fists in front of a parking lot and sign for Berkshire Medical Center
Massachusetts Nurses Association
Berkshire Visiting Nurse Association workers deliver a letter demanding administrators acknowledge their desire to unionize on Wednesday, October 6th, 2021.

Nurses and healthcare professionals at the Berkshire Visiting Nurse Association are pushing administrators to acknowledge their desire to unionize. In a letter delivered Wednesday, Berkshire VNA employees explained their interest in joining the Massachusetts Nurses Association, and gave their leaders a deadline of Thursday afternoon to recognize the effort. If the unionization bid goes unrecognized by then, the roughly 66 workers say they’re prepared to file for a formal election with the National Labor Relations Board. The MNA already represents around 900 registered nurses at Berkshire Medical Center, which is owned and operated by Berkshire Health Systems along with the Berkshire VNA. Berkshire Health Systems did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story. By way of disclosure, Berkshire Health Systems has been a WAMC underwriter. WAMC spoke Wednesday with registered nurse Sarah Roberts.

ROBERTS: We are not just the healthcare person in the home. We do direct wound care, patient care, helping people transition from knee replacements, shoulder replacements, hip replacements, as well as complicated wounds in the home, as well as healing from pneumonia, as well as managing their medications, their doctor's appointments, scheduling, other discipline needs. So not just nursing, but let's say physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, a home health aide, anything like that would fall under the VNA umbrella of what to do.

WAMC: Today, nurses and health care professionals with the Berkshire Visiting Nurse Association delivered a letter to administrators asking for voluntary recognition to join the Massachusetts Nurses Association. Break it down for me, what does that request entail? And what does it mean for the administrators to voluntarily recognize it?

So, we're actually seeking partnerships with them, believe it or not. We really would just like a voice for not just ourselves as staff, but also our patients and the family members that are involved. And we desperately would like to work together, and not to file an election, not to have any sort of contention with this. We have an overwhelming majority of our coworkers who have chosen to be backed by a union at this point, and I think that that's very important.

Now, what would it mean to unionize for the nurses and healthcare professionals in the VNA?

So it's a little sticky. We would actually be a separate entity from the hospital. And I know that it's a little confusing, because the hospital has a contract as well. So, homecare being what it is, it's very specific. And unfortunately, any type of unionization that would involve the MNA and the hospital, we are not really a part of that. We are a completely separate entity. So we're seeking recognition for that. And for just various- Like, we cover the entirety of Berkshire County. So different areas of Berkshire County, different drive times, different locations- We just really want the time and proper standards to be given to us for different patient needs.

The press release that came out about this decision to come forward with the desire to unionize refers to ‘increasingly challenging working conditions’ and ‘unpredictable benefits and staff support systems.’ Walk me through that- Can you maybe detail what exactly that is a reference to?

Healthcare in and of itself- You've probably followed enough of the healthcare issues pre-pandemic. Add on top of staffing and retention issues that are a given in any healthcare environment, add to that a pandemic, and people are being shoved out of the hospital a lot faster. They are not going to nursing homes. They're going home. And who's going to care for them at home but the VNA? We have not been given the amount of time to really be able to spend with our patients. We're looked at as, we need to see X amount of people in X amount of day. Like, there is no cause for acuity, there's not enough time for- We end up giving more of our time than then we actually get paid for. I think that might be ultimately what it comes down to.

You've given the Berkshire VMA a deadline of tomorrow, Thursday, October 7th, to respond to this request for recognition. At this point, taking the temperature of the relationship, at this point do you think that they're going to go along with that request, or do you think that it may come down to you officially, formally filing for an election with an National Labor Relations Board?

I am nothing if I'm not optimistic. And I would certainly hope that they see the increasing demand and need and understand that we are united front as to going forward with the union, and only – I don't seek to strive any discontent, and I know that the overwhelming majority of people who are with us don't either. So I don't really have a good gauge for whether or not they're going to give us any pushback. All that I can do is hope that they will voluntarily recognize us.

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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