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Maine Med Nurses Trying To Unionize Amid Pushback From Bosses

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National Nurses United
Janel Crowley (left) and Michelle Burke, registered nurses at Maine Medical Center, are supporting an effort to form a union.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic battered Maine, nurses at the state’s largest hospital, Maine Medical Center in Portland, had started working to form a union to give them more of a say in the high-level decisions affecting them and their patients. 

Their efforts only accelerated as virus cases surged last spring and this winter, sending hundreds of sick Mainers through Maine Med’s doors — and forcing the hospital to make many major decisions about staffing, resources and protocols. 

Now, the hospital’s more than 1,500 registered nurses are on track to hold a vote in late March on whether to officially form a bargaining unit. In mid-January, they formally petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to become a part of the Maine State Nurses Association.

It’s a step that they say would improve their ability to deliver health care that’s informed by their hands-on experience, such as by negotiating more flexible staffing levels in anticipation of the busiest days in the ER, or seeking an adequate supply of equipment such as face masks. They are also seeking to negotiate wage increases and better time-off policies that would be intended to reduce worker burnout

“This is pretty much all patient-driven. We saw gaps in the care that our patients were able to receive because of policies,” said Janel Crowley, a registered nurse who has worked in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care for a decade. “That’s why we’re trying to get this seat at the table, to really deal with the people who make the decisions that have no real direct line to the bedside.”

But the nurses have faced barriers in this final stretch of their organizing drive, as Maine Med’s management has opposed the effort in a variety of public and internal communications.

A hospital official was not available for an interview. In a statement, representatives said that nurses are free to learn more about “the pros and cons” of forming a union, but that the hospital urged them to vote “no.” 

The hospital argued that the 637-bed hospital can already support its nurses without the involvement of “a third-party that does not share our Values,” and it said that management has demonstrated those values throughout the pandemic, such as by providing “appropriate” supplies of protective equipment and vaccines, not cutting their jobs or benefits, and offering “Market-based wage increases” this year. 

Maine Med has recently been criticized for giving away a small number of its coronavirus vaccines to consultants from an out-of-state firm, Reliant Labor Consultants, which openly markets its own experience “fighting” union organizing efforts, as the Portland Press Herald reported last weekend. Nurses have been called away from patient care to attend training sessions with the consultants, whose involvement was first reported by WMTW

Maine Med has since acknowledged that it erred by giving away the state’s scarce vaccine doses to the out-of-state contractors in mid-January. 

The move earned a sharp rebuke from Gov. Janet Mills, who called it “an insult to the hardworking nurses trying to assert their rights and to those who are waiting patiently for their turn.” It also angered some of the nurses themselves. 

“My gut reaction is extreme frustration,” said Michelle Burke, an ER nurse who was one of the first people in Maine to receive a shot in the arm in mid-December. “It felt like such a privilege. In some ways, I felt guilty to be one of those first few people, because so many people need it and want it. I think Maine Med made a serious misstep to vaccinate the people they chose to hire and bring to Maine Med to disrupt the nurses’ right to organize.” 

“I was extremely disappointed in the organization when I heard that, not only because they were bringing in outside people to talk to us about unionizing, but I have a child with cystic fibrosis who is not currently eligible for a vaccine, so I felt somebody was skipping him in line,” Crowley said. 

The organizing effort at Maine Med comes as health care workers across the country have shown renewed interest in collective bargaining during the coronavirus pandemic, as many of them have struggled to access protective equipment and other supplies from their employers. 

Out of roughly 1,500 petitions for union representation posted on the National Labor Relations Board website in 2020, 16% appeared related to the health care field, up from 14% the previous year, according to NPR. In addition, existing unions such as the Maine State Nurses Association have been playing an active role in demanding better protections during the pandemic. 

Research has shown that health facilities with unions have betterpatient outcomes and are more likely to have inspections that can find and correct workplace hazards, NPR found. Many hospitals have responded to organizing efforts in a similar manner as Maine Med, saying that they already prioritize worker safety and that the unions are trying to divide staff and management when unity is needed. 

The Maine State Nurses Association, which is an affiliate of the National Nurses United union, currently has about 2,000 members, with the largest cluster of them at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Many of the other units are in hospitals across northern and eastern Maine.

The union also represents workers at one Saco-based home health agency, MaineHealth Care at Home, which is part of the same parent organization that owns Maine Medical Center. That group, MaineHealth, is the state’s largest private employer, with about 22,000 workers. 

Maine Med has generally seen much higher annual revenues than other Maine hospitals, according to the most recent financial figures from the Maine Health Data Organization. It ended the 2018 fiscal year with a $140.5 million operating surplus and a 9.56% margin. 

However, in the fiscal year that ended last September, its parent group reported a $20.2 million operating loss across its whole system, after it delayed and canceled many elective services early on in the pandemic, according to publicly available statements. 

Crowley and Burke said that Maine Med often does have enough staffing in their two units of the hospital, but that they can be stretched thin during unexpected rushes of patients. 

During the pandemic, they said they’ve seen the value of pulling together to request more equipment such as thermometers from the hospital’s leaders. While Maine Med has had better supplies of protective gear than other hospitals, they noted it still does not have enough N95 respirator masks — considered one of the best forms of face protection — to provide them to all frontline nurses. 

“It took a while in the ED to get the N95s. Now we have them and can use them when we need them at any point,” Burke said. “But I know in other departments they have still struggled because the decision was made that their risk there was lower in the unit they were on."

 

She added, "Or people made those decisions without input from the nurses who were delivering the care.”