The St. Vincent Hospital Strike: Worcester Nurses and Supporters Protest Staffing Levels

Sarah Reinbrecht, Scarlet Staff

On March 8, approximately 800 nurses marched to 123 Summer Street where they began a strike at St. Vincent Hospital to protest staffing shortages. Garnering increasing support, the local nurses are represented by their union, the Massachusetts Nursing Association (MNA). Initially, the failed negotiations between St. Vincent nurses, the hospital administration, and Tenet Healthcare triggered the strike in the city of Worcester.

Tenet Healthcare is a Dallas-based healthcare service company that operates 79 hospitals, including St. Vincent Hospital, and 550 other healthcare facilities across the country. Negotiations between St. Vincent nurses and Tenet Healthcare have been occurring for the past year but have stopped since March 3. Nurses want assurance that they will not be assigned to more than four patients at a time; however, they also express that Tenet Healthcare is refusing to hire more nurses to keep profits high. The St. Vincent nurses assert that this strike is to protect the safety of the hospital’s patients while Tenet Healthcare argues that the strike is increasingly divided during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nurses at St. Vincent Hospital expressed that the turnover rate of nurses has increased and worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to concerns about staffing, nurses also want to receive better pay and benefits, which they feel contributes to the high turnover rate. The St. Vincent nurses previously successfully participated in a strike in 2000 to achieve a union contract.

Presently, the strike is ongoing, and nurses plan to continue their strike until a settlement is reached. As a result, St. Vincent Hospital has signed a contract with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), another Massachusetts union, to provide pay and staffing increases. UFCW represents 600 auxiliary staff members from St. Vincent Hospital, including patient care assistants, critical care technicians, clerks, clinical support, radiology assistants, housekeeping, operating room aides and pulmonary technicians. Like nurses, UFCW workers argued their staffing levels were too low and have demonstrated support for the nurses’ strike.

Additionally, replacement nurses have been hired by Tenet Healthcare to continue caring for patients during the strike; however, there have been reports of inadequate care from the replacement nurses. Allegedly, issues include untrained nurses not knowing how to use or operate equipment, staff neglecting to follow procedures, a failure to attend to patients’ needs, improper administering of medication, and the mislabeling of lab reports. St. Vincent Hospital CEO, Carolyn Jackson, has rejected these allegations of insufficient care and untrained nursing staff. She asserts that the nurses have been properly and thoroughly trained and that physicians have not observed any issues. Additionally, Jackson reports that they have not found any problems since the Massachusetts Department of Public Health is monitoring the hospital’s care on a daily basis, which is the standard protocol during a workers’ strike.

Moreover, Jackson has accused the MNA of harassing and intimidating members who will not participate in the strikes as well as patients entering the hospital. She claims that the MNA are threatening staff who are not participating or unwilling to cooperate. The MNA denies these claims and argue that Jackson’s criticisms further divert from the present issue of staffing and meeting the prevailing needs of the nurses.

The strike has attracted the support of the Independent Socialist Group (ISG), an organization dedicated to building a socialist party and protecting and advocating for workers. The organization has a chapter at Clark University, and one of ISG’s members, Jay Verchin (‘21), a student at Clark, who participated in the strike earlier in January. Verchin has heard “horror stories from nurses about patients due to the patient limits in the hospital being unsafe.” They emphasize that the nurses are fighting for safer conditions for themselves and their patients. Verchin, as well as the ISG as a body, are critical of for-profit healthcare organizations, like St. Vincent Hospital, prioritizes raising capital over addressing the employees and staffing needs (as opposed to nonprofit healthcare organizations).

The Worcester strike appears to be part of a small communal and growing trend of nurses on a strike. The trend started before the COVID-19 pandemic but has only intensified in the past year. In 2019, nurses in California, Arizona, Florida, and Illinois hosted strikes focusing on similar issues with staffing and a shortage of nurses in hospitals. One of the strikes occurred in a Florida hospital that is also operated by Tenet Healthcare. Recently, the Chicago Tribune argued that feelings of insecurity, as a result of hospitals merging, is one probable reason for the increasing  strikes among nurses.

Generally, issues with staffing, long working hours, insufficient pay, and lack of personal protective equipment are listed as the most common reasons for striking. Since the pandemic began, Bloomberg Law cites at least 16 instances of unionized health-care workplaces participating in strikes across the country. Additionally, the Chicago Tribune reports that since nurses are also in high demand and are not properly compensated, their shared feelings of frustration lead to and culminate into strikes and protests.