Windham Hospital nurses kicked off a 48-hour strike on Thursday morning, sheltering from a sporadic lightning storm under tents and umbrellas as they attempted to press Hartford HealthCare for contracts that include better wages and insurance benefits.
“We started at 7 a.m. with rain, lightning and thunder as well but we’re here, alive, and that has not deterred us in any way,” Andrea Riley, president of the Windham Federation of Professional Nurses, said from beneath a popup tent on Willimantic’s Mansfield Avenue.
“Nobody left. We’re not leaving. The nurses are out of it. They understand we’re fighting a big corporation and we need to do this now,” Riley said.
The strike, which will continue until Saturday morning, comes after dozens of negotiation sessions with the hospital system dating back to last December when contracts expired for both the nurses and a separate bargaining unit representing most of the hospital’s non-clinical employees.
Riley, a Windham Hospital nurse since 2001, said the negotiations have already paid dividends. The health care system has agreed to eliminate the use of mandatory overtime shifts, which she said administrators had employed to avoid filling staffing shortages.
“When you eliminate things like mandatory overtime it forces the hospital to actually staff correctly, to pay attention to staffing holes, to look at the call-outs, to have a plan in place beforehand so you don’t have these problems, you don’t have to mandate,” Riley said.
However, the AFT union representatives argued the hospital system has been unwilling to budge on compensation and health care benefits.
“When you work a nurse to the bone and she has substandard health care that she can’t afford, you’re not going to get the care that you need,” Riley said. “Nurses are not robots. You cannot plug us in at the end of the day.”
In a statement issued Thursday, Windham Hospital President Donna Handley called the labor strike disappointing and said the hospital system had been responsive to the issues presented by the union and remained willing to consider reasonable counter proposals.
“The hospital has worked hard to prevent nurses from walking out on patients. We are disappointed by the union’s decision,” Handley said. “We have continually compromised to find common ground throughout this long negotiating process. We remain hopeful that the parties will be able to reach agreement on a new contract in the near future.”
The hospital will continue to operate as usual throughout the labor strike, which will not affect patient care, Handley said.
The nurses, many wearing clear rain ponchos, were joined Thursday by members of the non-clinical staff union, who are also negotiating new contracts with the hospital system. Those workers — everything from food service employees to x-ray technicians — were conducting an informational picket and also casting ballots on whether to launch their own strike in the coming weeks.
Heather Howlett, president of WCMH United Employees, said she believed that a strike was likely, in part because the hospital system has pressured her members to accept an offer not backed by the bargaining unit.
“The administration has done a wonderful job of pushing people to our side even if they weren’t in the beginning,” Howlett said. “They’ve been bullying our members.”
Like the nurses, Howlett said the stormy weather had done little to deter her members.
“We had quite the downpour, we had some lightning but it didn’t change our stride,” she said. “The weather changed but our fight did not.”