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Backus nurses and backers rally amid contract dispute

Norwich — Nurses and supporters picketed Backus Hospital on Sunday in an effort to improve working conditions and highlight patient care problems during the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 250 people, primarily Backus nurses along with those in solidarity with their cause, converged on Washington Street outside the hospital Sunday afternoon. The combination informational picket, march and rally was organized by a nurses’ union, the Backus Federation of Nurses Local 5149, which has more than 400 members.

The primary issues at hand were safe staff-to-patient ratio, access to personal protective equipment (PPE), caregiver retention and recruitment and a new nursing union contract being negotiated with Hartford HealthCare. Nurses say they have been trying to address these shortcomings with Hartford HealthCare with little luck.

Representatives of the union and Hartford HealthCare, the health network that owns Backus, have been negotiating a new contract for months, a process complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The union’s contract, originally scheduled to end May 31, was extended to July 31 and has expired.

Sherri Dayton, a Backus nurse since 2006 and president of Local 5149, said the next contract negotiating session will take place on Aug. 17.

Among Dayton’s concerns is the reuse of PPE. During an earlier stage of the pandemic, she said, nurses were required to reuse N95 respirator masks and surgical gowns, a practice she said still applies in the case of masks, which are now worn with face shields.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back, the COVID-19 pandemic, that hit the entire world, and no one had adequate PPE, but now we know,” Dayton said Sunday. “Connecticut’s doing really well, but experts tell us it’s coming back. We just want them to put in the contract that they will stockpile three months of PPE. They won’t do it.”

Dayton said nurses are also seeking competitive pay, which makes it easier to recruit and retain nurses.

“For about a decade now, Backus nurses have been paid the least in the geographical region,” Dayton said. “No one works at Backus for greed, because if we did, we wouldn’t be working there.”

Dayton said Backus nurses are overworked and understaffed.

“We’re supposed to be working from, say, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and then maybe two hours before the end of your shift, they’ll say, ‘You have to stay four to eight hours more,’” Dayton said. “Sometimes these nurses are working 16-hour shifts. It’s dangerous.”

Nurses picketing along Washington Street in front of Backus, spreading multiple blocks and along both sides of the road, garnered a loud and consistently positive reaction from passing drivers, who honked and shouted in support as they went by.

One nurse, Mary Colonis, said she and her coworkers came out because “We just want what’s fair.”

“We’re not asking for anything more than that,” Colonis said. “Hartford HealthCare is not being fair to their nurses.”

Rebecca Curioso, who was near Colonis, said the COVID-19 pandemic has crystallized the labor conflict with Hartford HealthCare for her.

“Especially during the whole pandemic, when we’ve put ourselves on the line every day, we’ve just been treated poorly for years, and they’re not trying to work with us on anything,” Curioso said.

Sandy Brouwer, who was also with Colonis and Curioso, said safety is the main problem to her — she said there are not enough nurses for the number of patients, and added that staff needs to be provided with more PPE.

“They’re not hearing us,” Brouwer said of Hartford HealthCare.

All three Backus employees said there would “absolutely” be a strike if the union doesn’t receive what it’s asking for from Hartford HealthCare.

“But we don’t want that,” Colonis said.

The three went on to say that they deeply appreciate the community support they’ve received throughout the pandemic, and they asked that people keep speaking up on their behalf.

Many other nurses who declined to be named for fear of job security echoed Curioso, Colonis and Brouwer: They said Hartford HealthCare is being hypocritical by calling staff heroes but then not responding to their requests, they said staffing levels are too low, they said their wages are currently not competitive with other healthcare workers in the state, and they said they shouldn’t have to reuse PPE as often as they’ve had to.

While picketing, approximately five people with loudspeakers stationed at different intervals along the street led chants. For example, “Heartless Healthcare, you’re no good, sign a contract, like you should!” Or “What do we want? A contract! When do we want it? Now! What do we need? PPE! When do we want it? Now! If we don’t get it? Shut it down!” Or “What’s disgusting? Union busting! What’s outrageous? Stagnant wages! What’s appalling? Bosses stalling!”

Some of the hundreds of signs included “PPE: Properly Protect Everyone,” “We demand safety, protection and respect,” “Heroes not Zeros,” and others.

In an Aug. 6 statement, Backus President Donna Handley said she has the utmost respect for nurses, but the union is being disingenuous in its tactics.

Handley said a mediation process with federal mediators began on Aug. 5, which was the first night Hartford HealthCare saw the union's list of key issues.

"The Union now claims we did not present a counterproposal, but the mediators asked the Hospital not to respond to the Union last night," Handley said. "Instead, they asked us to prepare a comprehensive counter for our next meeting, and we agreed."

Handley anticipated animosity from the nurses union. "In the coming days, you will hear a lot of criticism from the Union. The reality is that the Union agreed to mediation, but their actions seem to indicate that they don't want to listen to the mediators," Handley said. "That doesn't make sense to us, as this is the process we need to follow to get to a contract. But maybe the Union has other plans. After all, they started talking about a possible strike months before the contract even expired."

During Sunday's demonstration, speakers and protest leaders often emphasized the fact that most of those lining the streets were nurses; it was easy to tell by the dozens of people dressed in blue scrubs. They accused Hartford HealthCare of trying to separate the union from the employees it represents.

Picketers marched to Chelsea Parade Park shortly before 4 p.m., where they heard from speakers such as state AFL-CIO President Sal Luciano and State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, among others.

“It’s no surprise that Backus Union Nurses has a proposal for adequate PPE, a proposal rejected by Hartford HealthCare,” Luciano said to boos from the crowd gathered on the park lawn. “The nurses have a proposal for staffing ratios. … That proposal was rejected by Hartford HealthCare.”

Osten spoke out in favor of the nurses’ demands.

“Backus Hospital makes more money than any other hospital in the state of Connecticut. … They have the money to spare,” Osten said. “We need to understand workers are the absolute backbone of every organization. Without nurses, Backus Hospital would be nothing.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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