Hospital workers picket outside Windham Hospital on June 6, 2022 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Nurses and hospital employees picketed outside Windham Hospital Monday in an effort to pressure Hartford HealthCare to agree to curtail mandatory overtime shifts and provide its employees with better health care benefits through ongoing contract negotiations.

More than a dozen workers marched along the sidewalk of Mansfield Avenue in Willimantic as part of an informational picket line meant to drum up community support for two bargaining units currently in negotiations with the hospital’s parent company. 

The AFT unions represent the facility’s nurses as well as most of its non-management, non-security employees. The groups have been working to negotiate new contracts since December. 

Andrea Riley, president of the Windham Federation of Professional Nurses, said the union was seeking better pay, benefits and an end to mandatory overtime shifts, which she said have been used to fill staffing shortfalls at the hospital. 

Riley, who has worked at Windham Hospital since 2001, said the picket was necessary because Hartford HealthCare had not been responsive to the needs of its staff. A nationwide nursing shortage presented an opportunity to shift the hospital’s priorities, Riley said. 

“This is a pivotal moment for nurses to actually change the way health care is driven away from profit and back to patient care,” she said. “We just want to be able to deliver safe care, safe staffing ratios, we’d like not to be mandated for 16 hours and be able to spend time with our patients.”

In a statement provided Monday, Donna Handley, the hospital’s president, said she was disappointed the unions had chosen to picket but she said the demonstration would not impact patient care.

Handley said the hospital’s management remained committed to negotiating in good faith and had participated in 16 bargaining sessions with more scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. 

“We look forward to resuming negotiations and continuing to work with the federal mediator who has been assisting the parties, as we know that collective bargaining agreements are achieved through compromise at the bargaining table, and not on a picket line,” Handley said.

Andrea Riley, president of the Windham Federation of Professional Nurses Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Several workers on the picket line said their own health care benefits made seeking care unaffordable. Heather Howlett, president of WCMH United Employees, said non-clinical employees often do not receive the same incentives as the hospital’s medical staff.

“We’re the foundation. If my members aren’t cleaning up the garbage and giving people food, who’s going to do that?” Howlett said. “If the operations guys aren’t fixing what goes wrong — it’s not a new building.”

John Brady, vice president of AFT Connecticut, said he hoped Monday’s event would catch the attention of state officials. Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, was scheduled to speak during a rally for the picketing workers Monday afternoon. 

“They’re being unreasonable,” Brady said of Hartford HealthCare. “Hopefully the politicians who have some influence on them will lean on them and say ‘Be reasonable.’”

It would not be the first time this year that state officials took notice of the hospital’s management. In February, the Office of Health Strategy announced a $65,000 fine against Hartford HealthCare for ending maternity services at hospitals including Windham Hospital in 2020 without filing the appropriate request with the state. Hartford HealthCare is appealing the fine. 

Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, tried to change the law to make it impossible for hospitals to end services before asking the state for permission, but the legislation never made it to a vote. The bill ultimately stalled on the House calendar without passage.