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

Nurses, lab workers and radiology staffers at Calais Regional Hospital plan to go on strike for two days next week, ratcheting up an ongoing labor dispute that included a recent call for the hospital’s CEO to be fired and raising new concerns about what they said has been a poor response to a coronavirus outbreak that recently infected six of their colleagues.

The strike will take place next week on Wednesday and Thursday, according to a written notice that Maine State Nurses’ Association, the union representing the workers, provided to the hospital on Friday. The staff members would return to their jobs on Friday morning, Nov. 20, for shifts starting at 7 a.m.

The union has about 50 members at the Calais hospital, including registered nurses, medical laboratory scientists, laboratory technologists and radiology technologists. The vote to strike was “nearly unanimous,” according to labor representative Todd Ricker, who declined to provide an exact vote tally.

The group initially authorized a strike in 2019 as part of a stalled contract negotiation, but decided to hold off on striking after the hospital declared bankruptcy that September. Nurses at the hospital have been working without a new contract since the fall of 2018.

In a statement on the hospital’s website, administrators said they were “very saddened that union members have chosen to strike” in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused a recent spike in infections in Washington County, including among a half-dozen of the hospital’s workers.

The hospital said it has a plan to keep operating if the union proceeds with the strike, relying on non-union staff who could be temporarily reassigned to different roles and one temporary worker. But the facility may have to delay some non-essential services, including testing for COVID-19 and elective procedures, according to the statement.

“Last year Hospital administration began developing a detailed plan to respond to a strike notice and is confident that essential hospital services will be able to continue as usual,” the statement said. “Knowing a short strike is a common tactic of the union, we felt it was our due diligence to be prepared for this scenario.”

The union has previously made clear its frustration with the management and working conditions at Calais Regional Hospital. Late last month, 84 percent of the union’s members voted that they have no confidence in CEO Rod Boula and called for the hospital’s board to terminate him, arguing that he has mismanaged the hospital’s finances, placed unreasonable burdens on staff and eliminated vital services.

The upcoming strike is meant to reinforce that message about Boula and also raise new concerns with the hospital’s preparedness to safely operate while COVID-19 is spreading in the community. In a statement, medical laboratory scientist Megan LaPlant said that the hospital did not “strictly enforce” the universal wearing of face masks until “we raised concerns about the outbreak” and that the hospital also didn’t make COVID-19 testing accessible to workers.

“Despite our requests to make COVID screening more accessible to employees, management never fully informed staff of how they could get tested themselves,” LaPlant said. “Some employees were even reprimanded by management for getting screened after they had been exposed to someone with the virus.”

Dee Dee Travis, a Calais Hospital spokesperson, said that the facility addressed within 24 hours “concerns” raised by laboratory workers and put in place additional “screenings, assessments and education.” Without going into specifics, Travis said those concerns “could only have been identified with information a person in their position was privy to.” She said that the hospital has been following federal guidance on masking throughout the pandemic and was “successful” in its efforts to contain the recent outbreak.

“We appreciate the quick notification of the lab staff, but respectfully disagree with their conclusion that this is an example of failure to put systems in place,” Travis said. “On the contrary it is the perfect example of an issue being identified and addressed quickly and efficiently.”

Travis said that the availability of coronavirus testing at Calais Regional Hospital “has been widely communicated” by state officials, the media and the hospital, and that more than 4,000 people have received testing there.

“I find it hard to follow the logic that CRH staff are unaware of how to access the service in Calais or at any of the other locations across the state,” she said. “When staff are concerned about any potential exposure, inside or outside of our organization, they are provided the CDC guidelines for testing and education regarding COVID-19. Staff are encouraged to test if indicated OR if they have any concerns. When testing is desired, staff are accommodated if they are on duty or they are free to come in as a drive through patient.”

In their contract negotiation, the union members have argued that the hospital is trying to increase their health insurance deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses, which would make it harder to keep or recruit workers, while they have asked to roll over the terms of their last contract.

“The strike vote definitely did not come lightly to the union members,” said Alison Monaghan, a registered nurse and union member. “We feel strongly that it’s a sacrifice we have to make to keep the experienced workers we have and recruit staff in the future. What the hospital is trying to do is slash our benefits.”

She said the group decided on striking for just two days, rather than longer, because it does not think an “open-ended strike is in the best interest of the hospital and patients and community.”

The hospital said that it is offering the union members “the exact same health insurance and paid time off as is provided to every other hospital employee, including administrators,” and that those “benefits are in line with other healthcare organizations.” It has also noted that the union represents just 17 percent of staff.

“We do not believe a strike will bring the parties any closer to agreement,” the administrators said in the online statement.

In addition to providing testing and treatment in response to the COVID-19 cases now spreading through the community, the hospital also contended with serious cash shortfalls during the early days of the pandemic, when it had to postpone a number of nonessential services. At one point, it said it would lay off 10 percent of its staff and, without additional financial assistance, might have to close in the early summer.