Maine Med nurses' union criticizes working conditions at hospital as pandemic continues

Jan. 13—About 50 members of Maine Medical Center's nurses' union protested outside the Portland hospital Thursday, decrying working conditions and staffing shortages and demanding that hospital executives do more to attract and retain employees.

Holding signs that read "Staff Up for Safe Care," they said more nurses are needed at Maine Med as the COVID-19 pandemic continues nearly two years after it began.

The protest was part of a national "day of action" organized by National Nurses United, the parent union of the Maine State Nurses Association. But it comes as the state association negotiates its first contract with Maine Med management on behalf of about 1,900 nurses who formed a union at the hospital in April 2021.

"Throughout the pandemic, nurses keep on showing up every day in very untenable conditions," said Meg Dionne, an emergency department nurse. Dionne said before the pandemic, each nurse in the department cared for about four patients during a shift, but now it's not uncommon to have five. "We are worth these investments and deserve these investments."

Dionne said there is "not a nursing shortage, but a shortage of nurses willing to work in the hospital." Dionne said one example of how Maine Med should value nurses more is that she is 31 weeks pregnant, and her maternity benefits should be more generous and include more paid time-off, especially in the weeks leading up to her child's birth, so she can more easily avoid a COVID-19 infection during that time period.

Hospitalizations have soared during the delta and omicron surges this fall and winter. Maine's hospitals were caring for 436 COVID-19 patients statewide Thursday, with 103 in critical care. Hospitalizations have increased at the same time that chronic staffing shortages have been made worse by the fast-spreading omicron variant.

But Clay Holtzman, Maine Med spokesman, said in a statement that the "staffing crisis in health care is a challenge for our country and our community."

"It is a long-term problem that is driven by many factors made worse by the pandemic," Holtzman said. "At Maine Medical Center, we have worked endlessly to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of our entire care team during every phase of the pandemic while also retaining, recruiting, promoting and engaging one of the very best nursing teams in the country."

Holtzman said Maine Med invested in its nurses by giving them $10.5 million in pay increases in December, providing $7.6 million in quarantine pay to MaineHealth employees, $3.2 million for child care assistance in 2020 to MaineHealth employees, reduced visitation policies to help keep infection levels down and other measures. MaineHealth is the parent organization of Maine Med and seven other hospitals in Maine. Maine Med is the only unionized hospital.

Holtzman said pay increases offered during a bargaining session last fall and accepted by the union were not uniform but "awarded based on market rates and job experience."

"The hospital added more than 400 new (nurses) to its workforce in the last year alone and is working to fill open positions. To fill these gaps, we bring in experienced traveling nurses, many of whom have asked to extend their contracts during the pandemic due to the quality and safety of our work environment," Holtzman said in a statement.

But Jonica Frank, an operating room nurse who often cares for COVID-19 patients, said part of the problem is a lack of retention of nurses who have specialized skills. In her unit, it takes six to nine months for a nurse to be fully trained.

"We don't have enough staff to cover all our operating rooms," Frank said.

And Janel Crowley, a neonatal intensive care nurse, said hiring needs to ramp up because they are so short-staffed that nurses can sometimes only spend a short amount of time per patient during their shifts. She said Maine Med needs to put "patients over profits" and called recent hiring efforts a "Band-aid."

"We feel like we are expendable," Crowley said.

Annika Moltz, who works in the medical-surgical unit, said that one nurse in that unit used to care for three patients per shift, but it's now up to four to six patients.

"We are being completely overwhelmed," Moltz said.