A car drives along the entrance road to Calais Regional Hospital on Aug. 21, 2019. Credit: Bill Trotter

The unionized nurses at Calais Regional Hospital have put the option of a strike on the table in their ongoing contract negotiations with administrators at the 25-bed medical center.

The move doesn’t guarantee that the roughly 40 staff — 35 nurses and four medical technologists — who are represented by the Maine State Nurses Association will strike. Rather, it’s meant to put new pressure on management in a negotiation that has dragged on for a year as the nurses work under the terms of their last contract.

The union members have objected to proposed changes to their health insurance and paid-time-off policy. Administrators have said the changes are modest and meant to give the union members the same level of benefits as other hospital employees.

Now that the union members have voted to authorize a strike, they would have to give the hospital 10 days notice if they plan to actually walk off the job.

“The employer has the opportunity to come back to the table” and agree to the union’s terms, said Todd Ricker, a labor representative for the Maine State Nurses Association who has been leading negotiations for the nurses. “We hope that this happens. We don’t want to strike. That’s very disruptive for everybody. But it’s about the only tool we have left.”

The union members have proposed that the hospital roll over the terms of their last three-year contract that expired last October.

They have said they’re not asking for any new concessions because the hospital has struggled financially in recent years, ending numerous years in the red and making the controversial decision to close its obstetrics department and end outpatient cancer care.

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 — such as reducing how much paid time off nurses could cash out if they left the hospital — but that the union members say would make it more difficult to recruit staff members to the remote hospital.

“We feel we’ve presented a fair and reasonable offer to the bargaining unit that’s good for staff and good for the organization,” said Deedee Travis, the hospital’s vice president of community relations. “We strongly feel it’s a win-win. We feel it’s an offer that should be accepted.”

On its website, the hospital has posted a copy of a memo in which its attorney advised union representatives against authorizing a strike and suggested that it wouldn’t lead to any new concessions.

“The union’s positions have nothing to do with the well-being of the Hospital or its patients,” the attorney, Charles Einsiedler, wrote. “We do not believe that a strike would do anything to move the parties closer to an agreement and would only serve to further polarize the positions of the parties.”

The hospital would be able to keep offering its essential services if the union members strike, according to Travis. She said that it has non-union staff who would be able to fill in some of the gaps and can also hire traveling workers to staff the hospital on an interim basis.

Ricker declined to share how many union members voted Wednesday to authorize a strike, but called it “a commanding majority.”