Members of Windham Federation of Professional Nurses and WCMH United Employees stage a press conference outside Windham Hospital. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Claiming unfair labor practices on the part of Hartford HealthCare, union officials representing nurses and employees at Windham Hospital signaled Tuesday they will consider a strike if ongoing contract negotiations do not yield progress later this week.

The group of nurses and non-management Windham Hospital workers have been working without a contract since December. During a morning press conference on a Willimantic sidewalk, leaders of the AFT unions representing the workers said its members rejected as inadequate a final proposal from the hospital’s parent company Hartford HealthCare in late July.

“The nurses have stated the staffing levels, the wages, our health insurance specifically is unaffordable,” Andrea Riley, president of the Windham Federation of Professional Nurses, said. “Nurses have to decide if I should go to the hospital if I’m having symptoms? Am I going to be able to pay for my health care? For people that work in a health care institution, that’s just not acceptable.”

Several nurses said that chronic understaffing at the hospital has necessitated a reliance on mandatory overtime, leaving staff exhausted and unable to provide adequate care for patients.

The benefits and working condition complaints remain largely unchanged from early June, when the workers staged a picket line outside the hospital. However, union leaders said Tuesday the health care system has now engaged in unfair labor practices in an effort to pressure its employees into accepting an inadequate contract.

Dan Durant, a field representative for AFT Connecticut, said the union has filed complaints against Hartford HealthCare with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging the health care system has used coercive tactics to intimidate employees including ejecting union staff from hospital grounds and subjecting workers to one-on-one meetings with management designed to influence negotiations. 

In July, a new law went into effect, which banned such meetings, often called “captive audience meetings” in Connecticut. 

Durant said the union’s next move will be determined by the outcome of a Friday meeting with Hartford HealthCare but a strike was on the table.

“These tactics are illegal and our next step if we don’t get a contract and these practices continue we will be going on an unfair labor practices strike and we will be sending a notice in the very near future,” Durant said.

“Obviously it’s a last resort, but we’ve been in negotiations since December of last year and the unfair labor practices are showing us that Hartford HealthCare and Windham Hospital really are bad actors here, trying to intimidate workers and employees to settle for a contract that is sub par,” he said.

In a short statement, Windham Hospital President Donna Handley said the hospital has been actively negotiating with the unions since December. 

“The hospital’s negotiating team has met for 42 official negotiation sessions, and has made continuous efforts and concessions to find common ground,” Handley said. “The hospital has respectfully responded to every one of the issues the unions identified as most important to them. We look forward to meeting again on Friday, as scheduled. We believe we can reach a fair and realistic agreement to resolve both contracts.”

Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

State legislators representing Windham joined the nurses for Tuesday’s press conference. Rep. Susan Johnson and Sen. Mae Flexer, both Democrats, said the hospital’s health care workers were a vital part of the community. 

“I don’t know how many ways I can say how frustrated I am to be standing here yet again having this same conversation about Hartford HealthCare’s inability to do right by its workers,” Flexer said.