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Saint Vincent Hospital Nurses Approve New Deal To End Historic Strike

WORCESTER (CBS) -- The longest nurses' strike in Massachusetts history has come to an end.

About 700 striking nurses approved a contract offer from Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester on Monday. In total, the strike lasted 301 days.

487 of the 502 ballots cast were in favor of ratifying the agreement. Nine voted against ratifying it, while three ballots were left blank and three ballots were contested.

In the approved agreement, striking nurses are guaranteed the right to return to their original positions. The target date for the nurses to return is January 22.

"We did it!" said Dominique Muldoon, a registered nurse and co-chair of the Nurses Local Bargaining Unit of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, at a press conference on Monday night. "We are returning to our jobs."

The nurses walked off the job 10 months ago, seeking more money and better health insurance benefits, but then a stalemate over staffing levels took center stage. Offers from owner Tenet Healthcare and counter-offers from the nurses' union failed to solve things, so the hospital hired 200 replacement nurses and shut down beds during the pandemic.

It was former Boston mayor turned US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh who brokered a deal last month that gives striking nurses the right to return to the exact jobs they left.

"It's a very humbling experience," said Marlena Pellegrino, a 35-year nurse at Saint Vincent's Hospital and fellow co-chair of the Nurses Local Bargaining Unit. "Not an easy experience by any means. There's ups and downs. There's trauma involved. Emotional and physical trauma when you've been on strike so long. But you also learn a lot about yourself. You dig down deep and you learn what it means to stand beside and with colleagues."

Muldoon laid out that the agreement was approved by the striking nurses in part because of new staffing changes. For instance, three of the hospital's cardiac units will now have limits of four patients per unit.

"In the past, these nurses were assigned up to five patients routinely. That's going to change now," Muldoon said.

Also, seven of the medical-surgical and telemetry units will now have a mix of four and five patient assignments.

"Prior to the strike, these nurses had five patient assignments with no ability to reduce assignments according to needs of the patients."

According to the new agreement, behavior health units will now be limited to five patients. That's a change from six to seven patients that were previously allowed in the units.

The agreement also includes resource nurses on nearly every unit, providing additional nurses who are able to assist in many areas on the unit.

"We have language that limits the hospital's ability to flex nurses, a controversial practice that sends nurses homes and causes unsafe conditions when patients are needed," she added.

Another key tenet of the agreement are the new policies to ensure workplace safety for nurses. As stated in the new agreement, there will now be two nurses seats on the Hospital Workplace Safety Committee to help them monitor assaults against nurses.

A metal detector will also now be used at the hospital to screen all patients and visitors.

On top of that, nurses will also be provided assault pay if they are assaulted by a patient or visitor. Sick or vacations days can now be used if an assault happens, and the first five days of used sick or vacation pay after an incident of that nature will be restored.

In a statement on Monday, a representative from Saint Vincent Hospital said, "We are ready to welcome back every nurse who chooses to return to Saint Vincent, and we have plans in place to make that process as smooth as possible. We are also eager to restore access to temporarily closed services so that we can better serve the needs of our community."

The hospital is asking the returning nurses to put their signatures on "Commitment To My Colleagues" pledge before returning.

"I know COVID is rough, and they probably need some of their staff back," said nurse Chris Barton. "But I'm excited, and I'm happy to go back."

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