U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal with Windham Hospital employees Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

ROCKY HILL, CT — Nurses from Windham Hospital met Monday with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal in an effort to ramp up pressure on Hartford HealthCare to provide better pay and health insurance benefits as part of ongoing contract negotiations. 

Blumenthal and members of the AFT unions representing Windham Hospital workers staged a brief press conference outside the union’s Rocky Hill headquarters before a closed door meeting Monday afternoon.

The talks followed a two-day strike held by the nurses in late September. Andrea Riley, president of the Windham Federation of Professional Nurses, said her goal was to get Hartford HealthCare, the health care system that owns Windham Hospital, back at the table.

“We certainly hope that your number one priority is the patient and that’s what nurses are looking for: safe patient care,” Riley said. “We will always put our patients first so we’re urging Hartford HealthCare, let’s sit back down, let’s look at our counters and let’s come together for safe care for our patients.”

The nurses and a separate bargaining unit representing most of the hospital’s non-clinical employees have been in negotiations with Hartford HealthCare since their contracts expired in December. 

Blumenthal, who is currently in the middle of a campaign for a third term against Republican candidate Leora Levy, said the unions were up against a powerful employer in Hartford HealthCare, which along with Yale New Haven Health was one of two systems that operate more than half of Connecticut’s hospitals.

“These nurses are up against a behemoth, gigantic, powerful organization that have the kind of monopolistic heft that puts [the nurses] at a disadvantage and when they go on strike, it’s a last resort,” Blumenthal said. 

In a statement, Donna Handley, president of Windham Hospital, said the hospital system had already made offers addressing most of the nurses’ concerns including the elimination of mandatory overtime, wage adjustments aimed at recruitment and retention of staff, and an increase in health insurance premium contributions. 

“The union representing nurses at Windham Hospital claims it is seeking increases in nurses’ wages, decreases in the amount paid for health insurance, and the discontinuation of mandated overtime,” Handley said. “That is exactly what Windham Hospital has been offering since June. The union appears unwilling to take ‘yes’ for an answer.”

Monday’s event came on the heels of two nationwide studies from Yale University, which found that wait times increased dramatically in hospitals when they exceeded 85% occupancy and that patients were increasingly leaving hospitals without being seen when emergency rooms were crowded and wait times were long. 

“[The studies] are an alarm bell,” Blumenthal said, “much like these nurses would ring a bed alarm if a patient is in jeopardy. We should be ringing the alarm for our nurses in Connecticut, standing with them and making sure they are respected, not just in rhetoric but in real, fair pay and treatment.”

Riley said nurses were seeing overcrowding in part because many patients were behind in seeking treatment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Heather Howlett and Andrea Riley Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

“Post-COVID, the acuity of our patients is much higher. They’re sicker,” Riley said. “When you shut down an economy and you’re unable to go see a doctor for the past two years, everything is behind so people have not been able to receive their medications or receive their care so they’re coming in and overflowing the emergency departments and doctors offices are having a hard time keeping up as well.”

Handley said those increased wait times have not been an issue at Windham Hospital’s emergency room. 

“The average time from when a doctor admits an emergency patient and that patient is in a hospital bed is a little more than three hours at Windham Hospital,” Handley said. “That time has not changed, and it is among the lowest admission times of hospitals in Connecticut.”

In addition to the hospital’s nursing staff, much of Windham’s non-clinical staff has also been negotiating new contracts with the health care system. On Monday, Heather Howlett, president of WCMH United Employees, said her members had authorized a strike in a vote in late September. Howlett said they were in the process of deciding on a date.

“We had a 94% vote to strike,” Howlett said. “So my people are ready. I have to say, I’ve been at the hospital for 32 years, so this is the strongest that I’ve seen our unit. A lot of times they’re afraid to come forward and stand up for themselves but just like the nurses, they’re exhausted and tired and afraid for their own health and safety.”