Calais Regional Hospital Credit: Courtesy of Calais Regional Hosp

A Washington County hospital that has made several controversial changes in recent years has again found itself at odds with the union representing about 40 nurses and other staff who work there.

The nurses at Calais Regional Hospital, who are represented by the Maine State Nurses Association, cannot agree with administrators on a new contract they have been negotiating for the past 8 months after their previous contract expired in October — a stalemate that shows no immediate signs of ending.

Given that the hospital has faced financial troubles in recent years, the nurses have been asking the hospital to roll over the terms of their previous three-year contract rather than ask for any new concessions.

While the hospital has agreed to preserve nurses’ wages in the next contract and offer them subsequent raises, it has also proposed changes to their benefits that it says are consistent with national standards, but that the union opposes.

The contentious negotiations follow several years in which Calais Regional Hospital closed its obstetrics department and ended its outpatient cancer care services. It also drew fire from the union when it contracted with a Tennessee company, Quorum Health Resources, to manage the hospital. The hospital ended that arrangement last year.

Over the past five years, the hospital has consistently posted negative operating margins that are below the statewide median for hospitals, according to the latest numbers that are available from the Maine Health Data Organization.

The nurses union at Calais Regional Hospital now includes about 35 nurses and four medical technologists, according to Anne Sluzenski, a nurse who has been involved in the ongoing negotiations. Its members are now working under the terms of their previous contract.

The hospital has proposed numerous controversial changes to the workers’ benefits. For example, while the union members have previously earned paid time off that can be used for any purpose — vacations, holidays or sick days — the hospital has proposed reclassifying some of that time as exclusively being for sick days.

Because the workers would end up receiving more overall days of paid time off, the hospital has said that it would be a more liberal program and that it would be consistent with the practice of other hospitals and organizations.

But the workers have said that the new program would be more restrictive. They have also said it would amount to less overall compensation because it would prohibit them from cashing out their accrued sick pay if they leave their jobs. They can now cash out hours of general paid time off that they have earned.

“They’re saying I can use that time for doctor appointments,” Sluzenski said. “But people like me — I think I’ve done that twice in the last 10 years. If I don’t call out sick, I have lost all that ([paid time off], and I haven’t gained anything. Also, I can’t cash out sick time.”

The union is opposed to other changes the hospital has proposed for their health insurance and paid time off. Representatives have said that the changes would make it harder for the hospital to either retain or recruit nurses, and that the resulting staff turnover could compromise the health care that’s available to people in Washington County.

But DeeDee Travis, the hospital’s vice president of community relations, said the changes — which are outlined on the hospital’s website — would improve the conditions there.

Now, after the hospital and union have held nine negotiation sessions, it is unclear what will happen going forward.

“The hospital has submitted its last, best, final offer to union members,” Travis said in an emailed statement. “The offer DOES NOT contain deep concessionary changes. It is reasonable and beneficial to both staff and the organization. Everyone at Calais Regional Hospital is committed to providing high-quality, safe healthcare, from our medical professionals to our administrative staff to our volunteers. We ask that the Maine Nurses Association join us in putting our community’s health care first.”

But Todd Ricker, a labor representative from the Maine State Nurses Association who is leading negotiations for the union, said it’s not prepared to “surrender” in the negotiations and hopes for “a reasonable and amicable resolution.”