RI Hospital stops diverting patients as nurses strike continues

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island Hospital is no longer diverting certain patients away from its emergency room as its 2,400 unionized nurses, techs and therapists continue to strike outside on the sidewalk.

The hospital had been diverting certain emergencies to other hospitals in order to suppress its patient count while replacement nurses took over during the strike, which is scheduled to last until Friday.

Rhode Island Hospital President Dr. Margaret Van Bree spoke publicly about the strike for the first time Tuesday, telling Eyewitness News she is hoping to get back to the table to negotiate with the nurses union after the strike is over.

“We are anxious to get back in discussions,” Van Bree said. “There will be a period of time that we will cool off after the strike.”

There are no current plans to meet to negotiate during the strike. The union’s members have been on strike since Monday afternoon, after twice voting down contract offers from Lifespan, the parent company of Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro Children’s Hospital.

“We’re missing basic supplies,” said Cathy Johnson, a nurse on the picket line Tuesday. “We’re missing respect from upper management. We are not compensated for our hard work.” 

Other nurses described a shortage of pillows, IV pumps and monitors that they believe makes their job more difficult and less safe.

“It’s to make things safer for the patients, it’s to make things better for us,” said Lynne Simpson, a nurse who has worked at the hospital for 33 years, since before the nurses unionized. “We’ve been fighting for things such as new monitors in our pre-op, we are just trying to make things better for everyone.”

Van Bree said issues of supplies and resources weren’t brought up by the union at the negotiation table.

“Certainly if there’s a problem with supplies we want to know about it,” Van Bree said. “That is not an issue that was germane to the negotiations or even really brought up.”

Van Bree said she thought the contract offer that was voted down by the nurses on July 12 was a generous one. Lifespan initially offered raises between 6% and 21.5% over three years to the nurses, with the larger share going to the nurses with 10 or fewer years of experience. 

That younger group of nurses hadn’t seen a cost-of-living adjustment in eight years, which is why they were offered a larger raise. But the union’s members rejected that contract.

“It totally made a division in staff by giving people 10 years and younger a big raise and people ten years and older 2%,” said Shelby Pereira, a Hasbro ER nurse. 

“Together with the committee, the union’s committee, we came up with a package that they said their membership would endorse,” Van Bree said. “It didn’t happen.”

The hospital then reached a deadline to pay $10 million to Huffmaster, the agency responsible for finding the replacement nurses during the strike, and lowered their next offer to the union by that amount. The nurses rejected that contract on July 19, officially authorizing the strike.

In a last-ditch mediation session Monday morning aimed at averting the strike, the hospital says it offered raises between 9% and 25% over a four-year contract. The union leadership declined to say what they counter-offered, but Executive Vice President Norman Farias characterized Lifespan’s numbers as “deceptive” because he said they included the automatic 4% annual increases.

“We value our nurses,” Van Bree said. “We believe we put a package out there that showed how much, but we also are a not-for-profit hospital and we have very slim margins. So we have to be here in the long run so we have to balance those things. But we think it was a very competitive package and we are anxious to get back in discussions.”

Web Extra: See an extended cut of our interview with Dr. Van Bree below:

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