Nurses reach tentative contract agreement with Backus Hospital
NORWICH — The union representing nurses at Backus Hospital and its parent company Hartford HealthCare have come to a tentative contract agreement less than 48 hours after a two-day strike ended, according to union officials.
Nearly 400 nurses picketed the hospital Tuesday and Wednesday after negotiations on pay, healthcare and protections during the coronavirus pandemic stalled as Norwich, where Backus is located, became a hot spot for COVID-19 infections.
The tentative agreement reached early Saturday morning would give nurses wages comparable in contract year three to nurses at Windham Hospital, which is also owned by HHC, according to a summary sent to members of the Backus Federation of Nurses, AFT Local 5149.
The tentative agreement also would reduce health insurance premiums, provide retroactive bonuses on ratification and address the use of personal protective equipment, which would now be issued according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, said union President Sherri Dayton, an Emergency Department nurse at Backus Hospital.
“We worked hard for this and it paid off,” union officials told members in the summary. “Our solidarity got us here. We should all be proud.”
The union will stage two information sessions next week to go over the tentative deal, officials said. The vote on ratification will take place Thursday, Oct. 22.
Nearly 400 nurses had walked off the job Wednesday morning, forcing Backus Hospital to divert patients to other facilities and pull staff from other HHC hospitals to continue patient care, Dayton said Thursday morning just hours after the strike ended.
Two units were closed — oncology and a step-down unit for cardiac care — during the strike, and the patients were transferred to other units within Backus Hospital, she said.
Backus Hospital has been the location of several COVID-19 outbreaks, Dayton and union members said, with at least eight nurses unable to walk the picket line because they had either tested positive or were symptomatic of the coronavirus.
The state Department of Public Health is investigating a COVID-19 outbreak at Backus Hospital, according to the agency’s spokesperson Av Harris. No other information could be released due to the investigation, Harris said.
Nurses and union officials contended that the infections were caused by hospital policies and a restriction on PPE that required employees to wear masks until the equipment was soiled or damaged. Under the tentative agreement, the contract will include language about the use and distribution of PPE according to CDC guidelines, Dayton said.
Backus Hospital was operating under a strike contingency plan that was approved and monitored by the state Department of Public Health, HHC officials said. DPH officials did not release any information on whether the strike negatively impacted patient care as of Thursday.
“We are pleased that ongoing negotiations between the hospital and the nurses’ union have led to an agreement on a fair and responsible contract,” said Donna Handley, president of Backus Hospital. “We greatly value and respect our nurse colleagues and the critical roles they play in our hospital. This is why we have worked hard to seek an agreement to allow us to continue to work together to fight the pandemic and protect our community.”
During the two-day strike, “fully trained and licensed nurses from around the state provided safe care for our patients, and the hospital worked as planned with the Department of Public Health to ensure the highest quality and safety,” Handley said earlier this week.
U.S. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, called the tentative agreement “fantastic news for the region and the stability of our health care system at a critical moment.”
“The two sides negotiated diligently into the morning hours to reach a fair agreement that shows great respect for the outstanding work of the nurses at AFT Local,” Courtney said. “Their services are more important than ever now during COVID-19, and this four-year agreement couldn’t have come at a better time. Congratulations to all parties, I look forward to a unified effort to crush this virus.”
Norwich, in southeastern Connecticut, is one of 11 municipalities in the state listed in the “red zone,” which means the daily coronavirus case average goes above 15 cases per 100,000 people. The other towns on the list as of Saturday are Canterbury, Danbury, East Lyme, Griswold, Hartford, Montville, New London, Preston, Sprague and Windham.