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Backus nurses to air grievances against Hartford HealthCare

Norwich — Backus Hospital nurses, locked in protracted contract negotiations with management, will picket outside the hospital Sunday in a bid to call attention to what they say are patient care issues and poor working conditions.

The nurses, members of the Backus Federation of Nurses, AFT Connecticut, Local 5149, plan to march south along Washington Street from the hospital to Chelsea Parade Park, 212 Washington St., where a rally will feature remarks by labor leaders, elected officials and patient care advocates.

The picketing is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., with the rally set for 4.

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.

A session facilitated by a federal mediator took place Wednesday.

“Things haven’t been going well,” said Sherri Dayton, a registered nurse who serves as president of Local 5149, which has more than 400 members. “Everything the hospital’s proposed has been a takeaway — our insurance, they’ve proposed eliminating a third tier and raising premiums and deductibles ...”

She said the nurses object to management-proposed changes in paid time-off policy as well as the elimination of a guarantee of a 401(k) match.

Dayton said Backus nurses continue to be concerned about supplies of the personal protective equipment, or PPE, they must wear when treating COVID-19 patients. 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 the masks, which now are worn with face shields.

“Experts tell us we’re going to get a second wave (of COVID-19),” Dayton said. “We don’t want to be caught off guard again. We’re at a point now where we know what we need. We want a three-month supply (of PPE). We want that in the contract.”

Dayton said Backus nurses also want management to address their pay, which she said is lower than nurses get at Windham Hospital and Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, making it difficult for Backus to recruit and retain nurses. Backus nurses also want additional breastfeeding rooms for staff who are new mothers, Dayton said.

Donna Handley, the Backus president, responded in a statement provided by Hartford HealthCare.

“We have enormous respect for nurses and the care they provide,” Handley said. “While we are disappointed we have not yet reached agreement with the American Federation of Teachers on a contract for our nurses, the hospital continues to negotiate in good faith. We have completed eight bargaining sessions to date."

“Our team is working constructively to address the challenges and opportunities we face,” she said. “We don’t need division. This is a time when we should be united and working together.”

Scheduled speakers Sunday at the rally include Sal Luciano, president of Connecticut AFL-CIO; John Brady, AFT Connecticut vice president; Dayton; Martha Marx, vice president of the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut's nurses and home health aides union, and state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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