Nurses, technicians at Machias hospital to strike

The union representing Down East Community Hospital staff says the group plans to strike for two days starting April 30.
The exterior of the Down East Community Hospital.
Tensions between Down East Community Hospital and its nurses at the Machias-based facility have grown in recent months. Photo by Kate Cough.

Registered nurses and technicians across a range of specialties at a Machias hospital will strike for two days starting April 30, the union representing the group said, in protest of the administration’s “refusal to address their deep concerns about recruitment and retention.”

Some Down East Community Hospital staff have worked under an expired contract since mid-October and been in contentious talks with officials for months.

Negotiations stalled in January when the union pushed for a bigger salary bump, and more definitive language on issues such as part-time staffing and traveling nurses, according to previous reporting in The Maine Monitor.  

“The hospital’s offer of a 1 percent increase is so disrespectful,” said Joelle Jackson, a medical lab tech involved in negotiations, in a press release Friday. “We are talking about nurses and technicians being able to afford to work at the hospital. That’s why we are fighting for a fair contract — so we can stay here and care for our community.”

DECH nurses start at $30.90 per hour and go up to $44 per hour, according to union officials. The average wage for a registered nurse in Maine was $84,340 last year, according to state data, or around $41 per hour.

Berta Alley, DECH’s chief nursing representative and negotiating team member, said in January that a 1 percent hike would do little because of inflation. Union representatives pointed to a salary increase of 9 percent at Northern Light AR Gould Hospital in Presque Isle, which ratified its nursing contract last July, according to National Nurses United.

“We are calling a strike because management refuses to offer competitive compensation to recruit and retain permanent staff to provide optimal patient care for our community,” Alley said this week.

DECH acknowledged the notice of a potential nursing strike in a statement Friday, and said the facility is actively in negotiations and committed to working collaboratively to find solutions.

“Our focus remains on providing safe, compassionate, and high-quality care to our community,” the DECH statement said. “While contingency plans are in place to address potential strike action, DECH remains hopeful that a resolution can be reached through open dialogue and negotiation. Patients and their families can be assured that DECH will continue to provide safe, quality healthcare services.”

Two nurses demonstrate how to check a newborn’s vital signs.
Melanie Bailey (left) and Stacey Dorr demonstrate equipment used to check a newborn’s vital signs. The two were part of an initiative announced last year to merge the medical/surgical and obstetrics departments at Down East Community Hospital in Machias, a move that has inflamed tensions among staff. Photo by Kate Cough.

Hospital officials argue the small independent hospital in Machias has fewer resources than some of the state’s larger health systems, with reduced reimbursement rates failing to keep up with costs. 

“We are extremely competitive in our current wages, and to put significantly more money into union compensation would not be financially sustainable for the hospital,” the statement said.

Tensions between DECH and its nurses at the Machias-based facility have grown in recent months, in part because of staffing shortages and increased reliance on traveling nurses, who serve stints of several weeks or months. The use of contract staff exploded around Maine during the pandemic. 

In Machias, administrators turned to travelers to fill a slew of vacancies, paying staffing agencies between $180 and $300 per hour per provider. The hospital also covered the cost of housing, which got increasingly hard to find as buyers snapped up properties during the pandemic. 

Alley said the shift is impacting patient care because permanent hospital staff must take time to familiarize their temporary colleagues with policies and procedures. 

Relations were also strained by the hospital’s decision last year to merge the obstetrics and medical/surgical departments, which Alley said was presented as a done deal, outside the contract terms. 

Administrators said the move was an effort to save the labor and delivery ward at the hospital – the only labor and delivery unit in all of Washington County – which was in danger of shutting down as births declined and costs rose. 

The decision to have nurses flex across both departments is highly unusual, according to the union. Alley told The Monitor in January that some nurses are not comfortable working with highly specialized OB cases. She said although the department merger has not been fully implemented, some nurses have left, voicing safety concerns.

DECH had about 20 nursing vacancies as of January. A bill in the state Legislature that would have increased minimum staff ratios for nurses statewide failed this week.

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Kate Cough

Kate Cough is editor of The Maine Monitor. She previously served as enterprise editor for The Monitor while also covering energy and the environment and writing the weekly Climate Monitor newsletter. Before joining The Monitor, Kate was a beat reporter for The Ellsworth American and digital media strategist for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. Kate graduated with honors from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Magna Cum Laude from Bryn Mawr College. Kate is an eighth generation Mainer, who lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, daughter, and dogs.
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