Bargaining team members for the A.R. Gould nurses (from left) Morgan Flewelling, Berta McDonald, Lori McPherson and Nicole Bridges on May 1. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Unionized nurses are demanding that Northern Light A.R. Gould Hospital management hire more nurses to care for patients.

Negotiations started in February between the union and the Presque Isle hospital, according to the Maine State Nurses Association. The nurses’ contract was set to expire in early March, but they are still working under the expired contract until they reach a new agreement with hospital management — a standard across America, according to Nicole Bridges, a registered critical care nurse and union bargaining team member.

Nurses say they are understaffed and handling too many patients, and want the hospital to put more effort into recruiting and retaining nursing staff. The COVID-19 pandemic spawned nursing shortages, and now more are choosing not to work in the field because of the unsafe environment and stress created by inadequate staff, union representatives said.

“Everybody knows that more nurses in a department creates safer outcomes and better outcomes for our patients and therefore our community,” said Lori McPherson, a registered nurse and chief union steward at A.R. Gould.

The hospital continues to negotiate with the Maine State Nurses Association and National Nurses United, said Greg LaFrancois, A.R. Gould president and CEO.

“Our daily focus remains on providing safe, high quality care to our patients and a supportive environment for staff. We’ll continue contract discussions at our next designated negotiation sessions,” LaFrancois said.

There are 20 open positions at Northern Light for nurses, McPherson said. The union wants the hospital to fill those jobs, add a third nurse in the emergency room and extra staffing in the medical and surgical unit.  

The lack of time for patients is what is hurting nurses the most, Bridges said. 

Nurses can suffer moral distress when they don’t have enough time to care for patients, she said. Moral injury can affect nurses in the aftermath, when they have to leave a suffering patient to tend to another, and worry they are not giving good enough care.

“We became nurses to give the best care possible and when you feel like you only have 10 or 15 minutes to spend with a patient, and then you have to move on to the next patient, you don’t get to build those relationships and give good care, and it causes guilt and anxiety,” Bridges said.

The group presented a felt rose basket to hospital leadership on May 1 to demand movement at the bargaining table, according to the state association. The basket contained 120 felt roses, each with the name of a nurse who signed a petition to address the issues with hospital leaders.

The idea for the May Day basket arose from a roundtable discussion with the union nurses’ bargaining team. They wanted to present something respectable to management that showed  not only solidarity with all the union nurses, but to educate other nurses about what was happening at the bargaining table.

“The nurses reiterated that with resigning this newer petition, and claim to retain and recruit safe staffing and better working conditions,” McPherson said.

The union nurses have been to the bargaining table around 10 times so far. Two more bargaining sessions are slated at the end of the month, she said.