Courtesy of AFT

(Updated 9:30 a.m.) NORWICH, CT — Nurses in Norwich, a city heavily impacted by COVID-19, launched a two-day strike Tuesday morning as last-minute contract negotiations between their union and the administration of Backus Hospital failed to yield an agreement.

The healthcare workers strike will last from 7 a.m. Tuesday until 7 a.m. Thursday, according to the Backus Federation of Nurses, AFT Local 5149. The union represents 415 nurses who have been working at Backus Hospital without a contract since Sept. 1.

The strike comes after 23 negotiation sessions between the union and representatives of Hartford Healthcare, the hospital’s parent company. Talks to avoid the strike continued through Sunday and the union remained open to an 11th hour agreement, union president Sherri Dayton, a Backus Hospital nurse, said in a statement Monday.

“Yesterday we made another good faith effort and devoted hours and hours to resolving the issues that remained unresolved. We even made progress on improved protective gear policies, expanded breastfeeding access for new mothers and accountability for safe patient limits,” she said. “But management would not budge on a key component of that last issue. They stubbornly refused real movement to improve recruitment and retention of nurses.”

In a statement Tuesday, Donna Handley, president of Backus hospital, said the hospital would remain open during the strike but said it would cause “an unprecedented degree of disruption during an unprecedented health crisis.”

“This is heartbreaking. The hospital has made every effort to avoid a strike,” she said.

Norwich has been a COVID-19 hotspot in recent weeks. On Oct. 1, the Public Health Department issued an alert for the city in response to a spike in new coronavirus cases. The department urged residents there to wear masks and limit trips outside their homes.

According to the union, about 25 nurses at Backus have contracted the virus so far including eight in the last nine days. Both sides acknowledge the talks have yielded progress on issues like the availability of PPE.

Handley said the hospital’s offer also included wage increases for nurses amounting to 12.5% over a three-year contract, reductions in health care premiums, more time off for most nurses, and changes to how overtime is calculated.

“We remain firmly committed to reaching a reasonable agreement. And while I am confident that both the hospital and the union ultimately will do so, now we are focused on the important work to be prepared to care for our patients,” she said.

While the nurses union claims the hospital’s management has refused the unions calls to improve recruitment and retention of nurses at Backus they remain open to reaching an agreement.

“From day one, we’ve been willing to reach a mutual settlement with hospital management and Hartford HealthCare’s executives. Working out the issues in a way that’s fair to our members and good for our patients is what being ‘union’ is all about,” Dayton said.

The union kicked off the strike with a rally outside Backus Hospital Tuesday morning in the rain. Speakers at the rally included Randi Weingarten, president of the national AFT, and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney.