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Maine Medical Center nurses' union says now is not the time to roll back COVID protections for staff

According to the union, Maine Medical Center is rolling back protections it gave to its employees when the virus was surging last year.

PORTLAND, Maine — During a press conference Wednesday, registered nurses at Maine Medical Center urged their employer to maintain COVID-19 protections put in place last year. This comes as cases of the virus are surging in the state.

The press conference was hosted by the Maine State Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (MSNA/NNOC), the union that represents Maine Medical Center's nurses.

According to the union, Maine Medical Center is rolling back protections it gave to its employees when the virus surged last year. Those protections include:

  • Allowing high-risk employees to work alternative assignments that don't involve direct COVID care
  • Covering the cost of treatment for employees who get sick with COVID-19
  • Providing quarantine pay to employees who've been exposed to the virus outside of the hospital, to protect themselves and their coworkers
  • Giving paid time off to caregivers who are past 37 weeks of pregnancy

"Just when we thought that we might be getting over the worst of COVID, the delta variant hit, and now it feels like the end is no longer in sight," said Madison Light, an RN in the hospital's float pool, meaning she works in several different departments. "Nurses and other caregivers are exhausted, frustrated, and stretched to their limits to provide the best care we can to those who come to us for help."

Todd Ricker, lead labor representative for the union, said in a release that the protections made employees lives easier under "extremely difficult circumstances."

"We appreciate that the employer made these improvements, but we are concerned to now hear that these protections are being rolled back by Maine Medical Center," Ricker said. "This is happening just as cases and hospitalizations are spiking again, due to the fast-spreading delta variant of COVID-19."

In May, the nurses voted 1,001 to 750 to unionize for the first time.

"As newly organized nurses, we have found our voice to speak together in the clearest way possible to our employer," Light said. "Dear Maine Med, show us that you're willing to see us through the entire pandemic. Immediately restore these protections."

A spokesperson for Maine Medical Center issued the following statement Wednesday in response to what was said during the nurses' union press conference:

"Nurses and our entire care team are doing an extraordinary job caring for our community under what are incredibly challenging circumstances during the latest COVID-19 surge. The frustrations of our nurses and other care team members are understandable, and MMC remains committed to doing all we can to support them through this challenging time. However, some of the assertions made at the news conference held in Portland by National Nurses United weren’t entirely accurate, and so we would offer the following clarifications and background:

  • As of Friday, Aug. 20, MMC and MaineHealth aligned their policy with respect to paid time off for COVID-19 exposures and infections to be consistent with recommendations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Specifically, care team members who are required to quarantine because of an exposure to COVID-19 in the community or at home will no longer receive quarantine pay. Instead, employees sent home for high risk exposures that they report as occurring outside of workplace are to use their paid time off, or when possible, work from home until they are cleared to return or test positive. MaineHealth and MMC will continue to exceed OSHA requirements by providing full quarantine pay for any care team member who tests positive for COVID-19 regardless of the source of infection.
  • As of Oct. 1, MaineHealth and MMC will also adjust their practice with respect to care team members who are pregnant and about to give birth. We will discontinue the special practice of sending employees home with pay after the 37th week of pregnancy through the time they give birth. Instead, after Oct. 1, our regular policies with respect to maternity leave will apply and employees may continue to work after the 37th week as their individual conditions allow. This change aligns our practice with the latest clinical guidance.
  • Union leaders were notified in June and July of these two pending changes. NNU representatives did not object to this notification either in writing or during an in-person bargaining session in early August. The union first made its position known on Friday, Aug. 27 after the hospital communicated the forthcoming changes to managers on Aug. 19.
  • Under CDC guidance, which has been consistently communicated and accessible to care team members, staff who must wear N95 masks can do so under limited re-use. This allows staff to safely wear the same mask during multiple patient encounters over the course of a single day (unless the mask is damaged or soiled in which case it can be replaced). No staff member has been directed to wear the same N95 over more than one day.
  • MMC and MaineHealth have made no changes to the policies governing medical accommodations in the workplace for employees with respect to treating patients who are positive for COVID-19. We continue to provide those accommodations to care team members based on an evaluation of their individual medical conditions consistent with federal guidelines.

Last week, leaders from Northern Light Health, MaineHealth, Central Maine Healthcare, and MaineGeneral Health came together for a press conference to discuss the strain hospitals are experiencing amidst a rise in cases of the COVID-19 delta variant in the state.

Hospitals in Maine are having trouble finding enough beds for patients, not all of whom have COVID. But as more COVID patients need treatment, it becomes more difficult to find space for all patients, officials have said.

“We have almost as many patients in ICU beds across the state of Maine currently as we did during our peak last January," Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer for MaineHealth, said last week. "But it’s not just our ICUs. Our hospital beds are full. I think it’s a combination of seasonal increases, along with the increased volumes of COVID patients and staffing shortages.”

As of Wednesday, 150 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine. Of those 150 people, 66 are being treated in an intensive care unit (ICU) and 26 are on a ventilator. Of the 326 total ICU beds across the state, 49 are available as of Wednesday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention.

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