Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Credit: Gabor Degre

Unionized nurses at Eastern Maine Medical Center have approved a new three-year contract that will bring cost-of-living raises and greater protection to charge nurses.

After spending the summer negotiating with hospital staff, nurses on Friday voted in favor of the new agreement, the Maine State Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee announced. MSNA/NNOC is an affiliate of National Nurses United, which represents 150,000 nurses nationwide.

Hospital staff applauded the agreement, which they said “continues to focus on the safety of our patients, rewards our nurses for the expert care they provide, affords the Medical Center more flexibility in recruiting, retaining and staffing to meet patient needs, and works with the reality of the current health care environment,” EMMC said in a statement.

The hospital board will vote Sept. 26 to ratify the new contract.

Nurses are generally pleased, too, said Dawn Caron, a veteran labor and delivery nurse who also serves on the bargaining team and is chief steward of the union, which represents 872 nurses.

“We felt we were being listened to. We came to an agreement on a fair improvement to the benefit package, [and] they’re going to offer a recruitment bonus to new nurses to help them with relocation and expenses,” she said. “Overall, it was the most productive working relationship we’ve experienced.”

Bargaining talks between EMMC and the union, however, have not always gone so smoothly.

In 2010 and 2015, union nurses threatened to strike over unsafe staffing ratios. Five years earlier, out-of-state nurses were brought in to cover shifts for EMMC nurses who walked out in protest after the hospital refused to address baseline staffing levels.

During bargaining talks this year, nurses again lobbied to increase the nurse-patient ratio, and were not able to secure the ideal one nurse for every four patients, Caron said.

“We didn’t get that part of the agreement,” she said, adding that they did receive a promise the hospital will work toward that figure.

A sticking point for nurses the hospital agreed to was aimed at lessening the demand on nurses in charge of a specific floor or hospital department. In times of high turnover and staff shortages, both of which have plagued EMMC, nurses on rotation often become overwhelmed, Caron said. Additional work inevitably falls to charge nurses, which made them less available in cases of emergency.

“We found nurses were taking more than what they felt was safe for an assignment, and the charge nurse was then being asked to make an assignment,” she said. That meant they less available to someone else in crisis, she said.

The hope is that stricter parameters for charge nurse duties will decrease rates of employees who feel overburdened or burned out. Turnover tends to be higher when nurses are more burdened, and hiring and training a replacement typically costs the hospital between $60,000 and $70,000, Caron said.

The new contract agreement “definitely doesn’t solve all our problems, but it goes toward making sure we can take care of our patients,” she said.

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