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Nurses at Backus looking to unionize

By Judy Benson

Norwich - Organizers of an effort to unionize the largest employee group at The William W. Backus Hospital made their actions public Monday in a statement distributed to fellow hospital employees.

The statement announces that registered nurses are seeking to form a local affiliate of AFT Connecticut, the same union that represents RNs, LPNs and other staff at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London and seven other hospitals in the state. Sixteen Backus RNs signed the statement.

"At Backus Hospital those of us responsible for providing the care have seen respect steadily eroding away," the statement reads.

Hospital spokesman Shawn Mawhiney said Monday that Backus believes a union would be counterproductive.

"We believe representation by a union is not necessary, and not in the best interests of the hospital. We continue to communicate fairly and honestly with staff," he said. "We are working to preserve jobs and we believe we are one of the best places to work in Eastern Connecticut."

Pressure on all hospitals to operate more efficiently means even financially healthy hospitals like Backus must make changes, he said. The hospital ended fiscal 2010 with an operating margin of $12 million. That represents 4.5 percent of revenues over expenses, one of the strongest among the state's 30 hospitals. To maintain financial strength, he said, Backus must be proactive rather than reactive.

"To continue to do things as we did in the past is not an option," Mawhiney said.

During an interview Monday evening, three of the 16 RNs who signed the statement said the organizing effort was initiated by the nurses several months ago, and has widespread support. Union spokesman Eric Bailey said he expects the approximately 480 RNs at Backus will be voting on whether to join the union sometime this year. The hospital has about 1,800 employees at its main building, and several dozen more at its satellite locations.

In 2007, attempts by AFT to unionize the RNs ended before a vote was taken. In September, the first successful union vote at Backus took place when about three dozen security officers, switchboard operators, dispatchers, traffic control officers and shuttle bus drivers agreed to join the International Union, Security, Police & Fire Professionals of America.

The RNs interviewed Monday said the unionizing effort is the result of growing frustration at decisions made by senior management that impact how nurses do their jobs, along with being given little or no say in those decisions.

"They quit asking for our input," said Gail Rogers, an operating room nurse at Backus for 20 years. "That's why we're organizing, so we can have a say in our community hospital and see it continue to thrive."

Their dissatisfaction, they said, began after David Whitehead was named president in April 2009 and hired a consulting firm to recommend cost-cutting measures and changes in hospital procedures.

"It used to be a hospital that was also a business, but now it's a business that happens to be a hospital," said John Brady, a registered nurse in the Emergency Department for 17 years. He said that while passing out the statement about the organizing effort, "I told my managers they were not the problem. It is the senior management I have a problem with."

That sentiment has been echoed by LPNs interviewed since Backus' announcement earlier this month that the jobs of 15 senior LPNs who work in patient care areas would be eliminated by the end of the year. The RNs said their decision to organize began before the LPN announcement, but was reinforced by it.

"It confirmed we were on the right track," Rogers said.

"It's wrong," added Brady, referring to the decision to eliminate the LPN jobs. "They're great nurses. It's a good example of how senior management doesn't understand health care."

Added Melissa Hunter, a recovery room nurse for the last 10 years: "There's a disconnect between their knowledge of what we do and how we do it."

Mawhiney declined to respond to nurses' comments about senior management or specific staff members.

The nurses said wage and benefit issues are not central drivers of their organizing efforts, although the hospital, "has to pay enough and offer good enough benefits to attract and keep good people," Brady said.

Among the kinds of changes they say have motivated them, the nurses gave the following examples:

• A new practice of bringing patients back to their original hospital unit after surgery, rather than keeping them in the recovery room. Hunter said recovering patients need to be near the stores of emergency medications in the recovery room and the nurses with specialized training and experience to detect and respond to danger signs after surgery.

• Despite nurses' complaints, a new type of IV catheter is being used. Nurses say insertion is more difficult and more painful for patients.

• Little or no notice given when policies on use of sick time and other employment issues are changed.

• The new practice of sending nurses from a general nurse pool to staff specialized departments such as oncology or orthopedics, rather than exclusively maintaining staffs of nurses with specialized training.

The nurses said they expect the hospital will actively try to persuade their co-workers not to back the union, as it did in 2007. One wall of an office rented by the union displays dozens of memos sent by the hospital to employees with reasons they should reject the union.

"For myself, the level of outrage is greater than my nervousness," said Brady. "I've been dissatisfied for a year or more."

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