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Nurses union, hospital spar over contract dispute as union plans strike

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The 2,400 nurses, therapists and technologists in the United Nurses and Allied Professionals Local 5098 union at Rhode Island and Hasbro Children’s Hospitals plan to go on strike on July 23 if an agreement with parent company Lifespan isn’t reached.

The union sent a 10-day strike notice to Lifespan on Friday, after members voted Thursday night to reject a 3-year contract.

“They do not take this lightly,” said Linda McDonald, a registered nurse and president of UNAP. “They would not be taking this action of moving forward if they did not believe that what was on the table is not a fair and equitable offer.”

“Our members took up their professions because they wanted to help and care for people, and they remain among the best-trained and most-dedicated health workers in our state," said Local 5098 president Frank Sims. "But their dedications has only been met by derision, as Lifespan fails to value and properly support the life-saving work out members perform every day."

McDonald said there wasn’t one single reason why the nurses opposed the contract. She said some voted no because of higher patient loads, others opposed a change to the retirement plan and some felt the cost-of-living adjustments were not high enough.

Ray Sullivan, a spokesperson for the union, said newer nurses have not received a cost of living adjustment in eight years, making Lifespan hospitals less competitive to hospitals in Boston, leading to nurse turnover.

In a statement, a Lifespan spokesperson said the contract offer was an “extremely competitive wage and benefits package” that included “pay increases for all UNAP members that ranged from 6.1 percent to 21.5 percent over the life of a 3 year contract.”

McDonald said for the newer nurses with zero to 10 years of service who have not received a cost of living adjustment in eight years, even the 21% increase over 3 years is not much.

“So if you divide that up, it’s a very small percentage that these members are actually receiving,” she said.

Lifespan spokesperson David Levesque said the average salary is $85,800. He said while newer nurses had not received a “step” adjustment in eight years, they were still getting 4% COLA raises each year.

In a letter to employees obtained by Eyewitness News, Rhode Island Hospital President Margaret Van Bree said the hospital has already spent $1 million on a staffing agency to find replacement nurses, and would spend $6.5 million more on contract labor.

"A strike does not make bargaining more productive and will not force Rhode Island Hospital to take any action that it does not believe is in the best interest of patients, staff, our physician partners, and the communities we serve," Van Bree wrote.

The hospital also offered a 6% retirement plan match and an “extremely generous non-deductible health care insurance plan,” to the nurses union, according to Levesque.

But McDonald said the 401K match is in lieu of a pension plan the hospital wants to stop offering to new employees. 

Levesque said all new Lifespan employees, aside from the union members, are being offered the 401K match plan. He said current UNAP union members are being given the option of remaining in the pension plan or switching to the 401K plan. 

Levesque also said the union never brought up issues of patient ratios or a lack of resources during contract negotiations with the hospitals, though McDonald told Eyewitness News those were both issues of concern.

"We're seeing on Med-Surg floors on the night shift we are seeing patient loads of up to 8 to 9 patients," McDonald said. "We feel a 4 to 5 patient ratio is what is safe for patients."

The Local 5098 union has never gone on strike in its history, McDonald said. The closest it came was in 2000, when they gave notice of a strike but did not ultimately go through with it. 

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