PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Hundreds of Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro Children’s Hospital nurses and other health care workers went on strike at 3 p.m. Monday, marching on the sidewalk near the hospitals, wielding signs and chanting as passing cars honked in approval.
The strike comes after a last-minute federal mediation session Monday morning failed to yield an agreement between UNAP Local 5098 union and Lifespan, the parent company of the two hospitals.
Nurses on the picket line said they were striking because of a lack of resources and staffing, and lower wages than they felt reflected their value.
“We need to take care of our patients,” Bonnie Blaney said. “We don’t have nurses, we don’t have supplies, we don’t have IV pumps. We don’t have pillows. We have patients who come in for surgery with no pillows to give them.”
“We’re understaffed half the time,” Alexandra Sipple said. “We don’t have enough time to care for patients the way they deserve.”
Lifespan has repeatedly said that issues of staffing and patient safety have never come up in contract negotiations with the union. The company has hired hundreds of replacement nurses to care for patients over the next four days, but some medical services will be diverted to other hospitals because of the strike.
Rhode Island Hospital is the state’s only Level 1 trauma center and will continue taking emergency trauma patients, burn patients, and cardiac and respiratory arrest patients at the emergency room during the strike. Pediatric patients will still be taken to the emergency room at Hasbro during the strike. Walk-ins will also still be accepted at the ER.
But the Department of Health has told EMS providers to take other emergency medical patients by ambulance to other area hospitals. Stroke patients will also have to be taken elsewhere. Rhode Island Hospital is the state’s only Comprehensive Stroke Center, so patients will be taken to one of the six Primary Stroke Centers and then potentially airlifted to Boston hospitals or Yale-New Haven Medical Center in severe cases.
At a news conference Monday morning, Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said the department’s “incident command center” has been activated as staffers monitor patient care, staffing levels and possible “surges” at other hospitals due to diversion.
“Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro Children’s Hospital need to remain vigilant throughout this week to help assure patient safety and quality, and we will be doing the same,” Dr. Alexander-Scott said. “The Department of Health has very high standards for the safety and quality of care, and those standards are not in any way lowered during this work stoppage.”
(WATCH: Health Department news conference. Story continues after video.)
Alysia Mihalakos, chief of the department’s Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response, said all seven other hospitals in Rhode Island have activated hospital command centers and are preparing to “surge” their patient levels by an additional 10% to 20%. She said the hospitals will be stocking up on supplies and ensuring they have enough staff to handle more patients.
The strike was originally scheduled to last for three days, but Lifespan said it was contracted with the replacement workers for four days of work and therefore would not be allowing the union members back to work on the fourth day. The strike is now scheduled to end on Friday at 3 p.m., at which time the nurses will go back to work, with or without a deal.
“We greatly value the expertise of our 2,400 nurses and technical staff and would prefer that our patients’ care remain in their hands,” Lifespan said in a statement. “In the absence of our nurses and technicians, we have contracted with skilled temporary clinicians who are familiar with working in these situation to assist us in continuing our core mission to deliver quality care during this difficult time.”
According to Lifespan, the hospital is currently caring for 411 patients, including 375 adults and 36 children. Lifespan says its planned maximum of patients cared for during the strike is 525.
The saga will not be over when the nurses go back to work, provided they still don’t have a contract. Negotiations between the union and Lifespan will continue as they try to reach a deal for a new contract.
A spokesperson for Lifespan said the hospital made a new offer to the union at Monday’s mediation for a four-year contract, which would include 9% to 25% wage increases. Spokesperson David Levesque said the union’s counter-offer included raises of up to 28%, which was deemed “unrealistic.”
“We are extremely disappointed that UNAP leadership has decided to move forward with the strike,” Levesque said in a statement. “No one wins in a strike. The hospital has offered extremely competitive wage and benefits packages valued at tens of millions of dollars.”
UNAP spokesperson Ray Sullivan said the union doesn’t want to negotiate in the press, and therefore won’t say what they asked for in their counter-offer. But union Executive Vice President Norman Farias characterized Lifespan’s numbers as “deceptive,” because he said they include the regular 4% annual increases the union members automatically receive.
“We’re frustrated,” Farias said on the picket line Monday. “They don’t give us all the stuff we need to do our jobs. They’re constantly expecting us to do more with less.”
“This is a difficult day for all of us,” Local 5098 President Frank Sims said. “Every member who walks the picket line understands what’s at stake for themselves, their families and their patients. Lifespan is a broken system where wealthy executives make millions and front-line caregivers are ordered to do more with less, and until that changes, patient care will continue to be adversely impacted.”