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UPDATED: Backus nurses, hospital management reach tentative agreement on new contract

Norwich — Representatives of the Backus Federation of Nurses and Backus Hospital management tentatively agreed to a new four-year contract around 1:30 a.m. Saturday, ending a marathon negotiating session that began the previous afternoon.

The talks were the first since the nurses staged a 48-hour strike from Tuesday morning to Thursday morning.

“I’d say it was pretty successful,” Sherri Dayton, president of the nurses’ union, said of the strike. “You don’t get everything you want in these situations, but we got a lot of what we wanted. We got a lot of staffing improvements that are going to allow us to retain nurses.”

The 415-member federation — also known as AFT Connecticut, Local 5149 — could vote to ratify the deal as early as Thursday, Dayton said.

In a statement, Donna Handley, president of the Hartford HealthCare-owned hospital, said Backus management was pleased negotiations had led "to agreement on a fair and responsible contract.”

“We greatly value and respect our nurse colleagues and the critical roles they play in our hospital,” she said. “This is why we have worked hard to seek an agreement to allow us to continue to work together to fight the pandemic and protect our community.”

With southeastern Connecticut experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Ned Lamont and his chief of staff, Paul Mounds, had held conversations with both parties. 

“This agreement represents the renewed partnership between incredible nurses who have been true heroes during this pandemic on the front lines since day one, and a hospital that has served the region well for months," Lamont said in a statement Saturday afternoon. "These nurses fought for a fair deal and that was the end result. I want to thank the leadership of both Hartford Healthcare and AFT for coming to the table and hammering this out over the previous week.”

The tentative settlement calls for wage hikes that will bring Backus nurses’ pay into line with that of Windham Hospital nurses, and grant annual bonuses to those with bachelor’s degrees in nursing and special certifications, Dayton said.

“Nurses won’t be able to leave Backus and make significantly more elsewhere,” she said.

Management also agreed to contract language guaranteeing adherence to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines regarding personal protective equipment, or PPE, according to Dayton.

She said that under current policy, the hospital can dispense PPE in accordance with CDC “crisis contingency mode” protocols when supplies are short, meaning nurses can be required to reuse N95 respirator masks until they are soiled or otherwise compromised. Management has taken that approach while maintaining it has sufficient PPE, Dayton said.

“Now, we’ll get a new mask every shift,” she said.

The union’s previous contract, which expired Dec. 31, had been extended to July 31 and thereafter. Negotiations on a new contract began in June and eventually stalled, prompting the union’s membership to vote Sept. 13 to authorize a two-day “unfair labor practice” strike. On Oct. 2, the union’s bargaining committee gave management notice of the union's intention to strike Oct. 13.

During the strike, Backus operated with nurses from around the state under a contingency plan approved by the state Department of Public Health.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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