Debra Labbe of Raymond worked as a nurse at Maine Medical Center in Portland for 37 years. Labbe retired in May 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — When pandemic panic seized health care institutions last March, it hit Debra Labbe hard.

A Maine Medical Center nurse for 37 years, Labbe worked in the electrophysiology lab and the special care unit. But as she and other health care professionals around the country tried to keep up with constantly shifting safety guidelines for coronavirus patient care, she couldn’t shake the fear she’d be reassigned to the COVID unit.

The 61-year-old was nervous about working in proximity to the virus.

“I worked through the AIDS epidemic, swine flu, Ebola, but I knew this one would take a toll on my psyche,” Labbe said. “I wasn’t into taking that risk.”

In May 2020, Labbe retired. But she remained in touch with many of her hospital colleagues, in part because she was “really concerned about the fallout that was going to happen to medical care workers because of dealing with COVID,” she said.

A sign thanking nurses is painted on a window at Maine Medical Center in Portland on Wednesday Feb. 10, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Labbe loved her time at Maine Med, but over the years, she was often frustrated when her nursing colleagues’ requests didn’t come to pass. She was on a personal leave during the last union drive in 2000, which was unsuccessful, but Labbe has witnessed the response from leadership since that time.

She understands the push to unionize.

“We may have been listened to, but I’m not sure we were heard,” Labbe said. “There’s a big difference.”

After filing a petition in January, the roughly 1,500 registered nurses at Maine Medical Center will soon decide whether to join the Maine State Nurses Association in late March. Mail-in ballots will be tallied on April 29.

The push from Maine Med nurses comes as union ranks swelled in the state in 2020 to 14.7 percent of Maine workers — its highest point in 20 years. Nurses at other Maine hospitals who have unionized with the Maine State Nurses Association have pushed for more personal protective equipment and other protections during the pandemic.

Though the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic changed the temperature at the hospital, the union drive began months before it. Labbe wasn’t involved in those early meetings, but she feels involved now — even though the decision wouldn’t affect her either way.

“The biggest reason I’ve gotten involved is because I’m not working anymore. It’s not necessarily going to affect me, but it will affect the care that people receive and the way the nurses are,” Labbe said. “I think it’s in their best interest to be able to have a voice.”

In many ways, nurses are more respected today than when Labbe started. She recalls that “40 years ago, you still had to get up from the desk when a doctor wanted to sit down.”

Over the years, hospital leadership provided Labbe and her colleagues some channels of representation, like shared governance boards, but she didn’t always feel empowered to speak out about issues at the hospital.

The afternoon sun shines on Maine Medical Center in Portland on Wednesday Feb. 10, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Better staffing schedules for nurses is one of the union drive’s major planks. Nurses have been “very stretched thin” in their staffing since long before the pandemic, Janel Crowley, a nurse in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, said.

Even before the coronavirus, nurses in some departments juggled weekly schedules containing multiple day and overnight night shifts. Studies have found that such rotating shift schedules negatively impact nurses’ health and wellness. That kind of schedule makes it hard to sleep, Crowley says, making it not a safe practice for workers or patients.

“It’s just hard on the body in general to do something like that,” Crowley said, adding that she believed nurses should be able to opt-in to that kind of schedule if they preferred it.

Crowley agrees with a recent Maine Medical Center statement that said the hospital has been able to handle its staffing issues. But that isn’t the point. She laments that she doesn’t get to perform the level of care that she used to be able to.

“I used to be able to spend more time with families, educating them and connecting with them,” said Crowley, who cares for critically ill infants. “We’ve had to stretch ourselves so thin to make everything happen to take care of our patients.”

Labbe believes all the nursing units could benefit from a union, but singled out the emergency room and NICU, where Crowley works, that could especially benefit.

Labbe said that Maine Medical Center changed the structure of paid time off benefits since the union drive 21 years ago, and not in nurses’ favor. Raises were “really good” back in the 1980s and ‘90s, she says, but were “definitely less” good beginning in the early 2000s, when health insurance became more expensive too.

Some of her colleagues — the older ones especially — don’t support a union. To them, the shared governance structure and elective councils give nurses enough voice in the company.

A masked woman walks by Maine Medical Center’s south entrance in Portland on Wednesday Feb. 10, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

But it makes sense to her why support is strong among younger staff. Around 2010, the hospital stopped offering pensions for new hires. On the other side of her career, Labbe feels fortunate knowing that she wouldn’t have been able to retire without her pension plan.

“I worked hard, and that was a huge benefit,” Labbe said. ”This generation won’t have that.”

Crowley was hired in 2005 with a pension plan and still has one, but said the lack of those kinds of benefits often comes up in conversations with younger nurses who were hired in the past decade. Nurses who have been around for decades “have seen so many things come and go, and so many changes they have no say over,” Crowley said.

Restoring the system of pension benefits is not on the union’s agenda, but “we talk about how having a union contract would lock those kinds of things in place where they can’t change them in the future without our knowledge and agreement,” Crowley said.

A Maine Medical Center spokesperson did not respond to specific questions about changes to the hospital’s pension plan, but added that the hospital “continues to provide retirement benefits.”

Responding to nurses’ complaint about staffing and scheduling, a Maine Med spokesperson cited the hospital’s certification from Magnet, a distinction awarded to prestigious hospitals through a costly accreditation process by the American Nurses Association. Maine Medical Center has been Magnet-certified three times.

Maine Medical Center opposes the formation of a union. Hospital leaders have said they “do not believe that they would work better with a third party that does not share our vision,” and have set up a website to explain their position.

“Our organization can always find new ways to better support our nurses,” a hospital spokesperson said in a prepared statement. “During the pandemic when it mattered most, we believe we put our values into action for the benefit of our nurses: No job cuts. No pay cuts. No reduction in benefits. Market-based wage increases awarded to start 2021. Appropriate supplies of PPE. Vaccinations for care team members.”

The hospital brought in a third party of their own, Reliant Labor Solutions, a national firm that specializes in helping companies fight union efforts, according to its website. The hospital has pulled nurses away from patient care to attend the firm’s in-person training sessions.

The hospital has also received criticism for flouting state coronavirus protocols by providing vaccines to the firm’s out-of-state labor consultants, as first reported by the Portland Press Herald, prompting a rebuke from Gov. Janet Mills.

The hospital apologized for that move, but the chain of events disappointed Labbe, and calcified her support for her colleagues. She may be watching from the sidelines, but she’s cheering the effort on.