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Members of the New York State Nurses Association hold an informational picket in front of Massena Hospital on Thursday to call for a fair contract and better staffing. Bob Beckstead/Watertown Daily Times
Members of organized labor, including New York State United Teachers, joined with members of the New York State Nurses Association for an informational picket in front of Massena Hospital on Thursday. Bob Beckstead/Watertown Daily Times
Chants were heard Thursday afternoon at Massena Hospital as members of the New York State Nurses Association held an informational picket to call attention to their need for new contract and safe staffing levels. Bob Beckstead/Watertown Daily Times
MASSENA — Picket signs greeted visitors to Massena Hospital on Thursday afternoon as members of the New York State Nurses Association from St. Lawrence Health, along with community and labor allies, shared their demands for a fair contract and more staffing.
However, St. Lawrence Health officials say they remain committed to “bargaining in good faith to reach a new collective bargaining agreement that ensures its patients receive the best possible care and that nurses are treated fairly and can do their best work.”
MASSENA — Several speakers shared their views about contract negotiations and staffing level…
The members from Massena Hospital had support from nurses at Canton-Potsdam and Gouverneur hospitals, as well as members of other organized labor organizations during the informational picket in which they called on hospital administrators to fully address chronic understaffing and to bargain a fair contract that invests in the community’s nurses and protects essential health care services.
“Hey hey ho ho, unsafe staffing’s got to go,” “safe staffing saves lives,” and “healthcare workers are on a mission, St. Lawrence does not listen” were among the chants heard as the members stood along Maple Street, in front of the hospital, and received supportive horn honks from drivers as they passed by.
Among those taking part were Massena Hospital registered nurses Casey Paquin, Megan Poupore and Amanda Murray.
Ms. Paquin has been at the hospital since 2007 after graduation from Massena Central High School.
“I started as a nurse’s aide and I became an RN (registered nurse) in 2012. I currently work in the operating room,” she said.
She said Thursday’s picket was “all about getting a fair contract for nurses across St. Lawrence Health and ensuring that we’re going to recruit and retain the nurses and provide safe staffing for patients.”
Ms. Paquin said she’s seen a steady decline in services the hospital provides and “a mass exodus of staff, and not just nurses. We’re talking CSEA (Civil Service Employees Association)” since she began working at Massena Hospital.
“CPH (Canton-Potsdam Hospital) is overwhelmed. Because of the services we no longer offer, they have to pick up our slack,” she said.
Bringing in new nurses to assist with staffing is a problem, Ms. Paquin said.
“Although Massena’s a great community, we don’t have a lot to offer attraction-wise. So, it’s hard to get people from out of town to come and stay. They’re used to the big city layout,” she said.
For those working on the hospital floors, she said, “We try to provide the best care we can to our patients.”
As a teenager, Ms. Poupore started as an aide at Massena Hospital in 2014, and she’s seen a decline in services available to the Massena community.
“It went from our ICU (Intensive Care Unit) closing down to our maternity closing down. Then, surgical services have decreased tremendously,” she said.
They’ve also seen the transition from a hospital owned by the town of Massena to one owned by St. Lawrence Health. The sale of what was then Massena Memorial Hospital became official as 2019 turned into 2020.
“Everything was just kind of up in the air. I know at one point we were kind of just stuck in limbo. But, our services haven’t increased at all,” Ms. Poupore said. “With services decreasing here, they didn’t think about transportation, they didn’t think about the overall picture of what was going to happen to our community.”
Ms. Murray started at Canton-Potsdam Hospital and then came to Massena “because it was extremely unsafe.”
“When I left four years ago, the staffing was unsafe for the patient care level then. It’s gotten worse, especially post-pandemic. Everybody left because we went from having a state retirement system to having no pension and not a very good retirement system to invest in,” she said.
When the hospital was sold to St. Lawrence Health, going from a municipally-owned facility to a private company, she said they lost some of their benefits.
We lost our state retirement. We lost our wonderful health insurance, which we’re striving to fight to get back now in this contract. Our insurance is unaffordable. It’s not good coverage,” Ms. Murray said. “Unfortunately, St. Lawrence Health uses tax dollars because most of our nurses who have families can’t afford the insurance and the family plan. So, they have to put their children on the Child Health Plus plan. So, they’re using tax dollars instead of giving us an affordable health insurance plan.”
At the same time, she said they’re being asked to do more.
“Most days we don’t get a lunch break. We’re lucky if we have time to even go to the bathroom. We’d have no relief,” she said.
Negotiations began in November. On Wednesday, representatives from St. Lawrence Health and the New York State Nursing Association-represented nurses met for the 26th bargaining session to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. It was a mammoth session, according to the nurses.
“We had negotiations yesterday. We started at 8 a.m. yesterday in Canton and we didn’t get done until 4 a.m. this morning and they required us to show up to work this morning. So, we showed up for work and we’re here,” Ms. Poupore said.
A mediator had been called in to help the two sides make progress.
“The session was the first that included a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). The parties agreed to bring in the mediator after the most recent bargaining sessions in the hope this would help reach an agreement. A tremendous amount of progress was made,” St. Lawrence Health officials said in a news release they issued on Thursday.
But, the nurses saw it differently.
“We couldn’t even get management to come into the room to have a conversation with us. They relied solely on the mediator. Then, at 1 a.m. we were begging them not to go. I told them that we could finish this, like we could see light at the end of the tunnel. Please just stay and work through it with us, and they have their jackets on,” Ms. Paquin said.
“They left us to dry and then they’re like, ‘You’re still required to show up for your shift tonight,’ which we did because we don’t have the proper staff,” Ms. Poupore said.
St. Lawrence Health officials said they’ve put forward an offer that includes the New York State Nurse’s Association Benefits Fund (Plan B, Employee Premium Option 3), effective Jan. 1, 2024.
“Through the negotiations, it became clear that this healthcare option was quite important to many SLH nurses. SLH hopes that offering this as part of its package will be a major step towards reaching an agreement,” they said.
They also proposed a five-year contract that contemplates annual increases totaling 21% over the life of the contract — a 6% wage increase as soon as the contract is ratified; a 5% increase in 2024; a 4% increase in 2025; a 3% increase in 2026, and a 3% increase in 2027.
“Moving forward, SLH remains committed to bargaining in good faith to reach a new collective bargaining agreement that ensures its patients receive the best possible care and that nurses are treated fairly and can do their best work,” St. Lawrence Health officials said. “SLH’s nurses play a vitally important role in making SLH a leading health system in the North Country and in the State of New York. SLH continues to have the highest respect for all its nurses and is extremely grateful for all they do every day to care for patients.”
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