Tenet-owned St. Vincent Hospital will pursue voluntary furloughs after clash with nurses union

The Tenet-owned St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, is implementing voluntary furloughs of nursing staff that may become mandatory after a major clash with the state’s nurses union.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association slammed St. Vincent in a statement Thursday saying the hospital is doing furloughs at a time when the state is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases. The union was also angry Tenet is pursuing furloughs even when the company has cash on hand and is getting economic stimulus money.

“This is no time to be sending staff home, when our patients and our community needs us more than ever before,” said Marlena Pellegrino, a medical-surgical nurse at St. Vincent and a co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit of the union, in a statement.

The union was furious when Tenet threatened to implement a mandatory furlough April 10 and the right to cancel and reduce staff daily.

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The union and Tenet entered talks last weekend and through Wednesday, when Tenet made an ultimatum for the nurses to accept by 6 p.m.

Tenet said the mandate that is now in place was voluntary furloughs for nurses that have asked to be furloughed and will seek additional volunteers.

But the union said Tenet didn’t budge on its major demand on how to properly redeploy staff.

Tenet insisted that “they wanted the right to force a nurse in any unit to work in any other unit independently whether they wanted to or not, or they would be forced to go home,” said David Schildmeier, spokesman for the union.

He said the practice is “unsafe” and that normal protocol is that when nurses go to work in another unit and they don’t have the skills for that unit they work as a partner with an experienced nurse.

Tenet told FierceHealthcare that the hospital would not force any nurse to work in a role they were not appropriately trained for.

“Instead, Saint Vincent’s proposal sought to give nurses the choice between being trained for a safe alternative assignment or taking time off with or without the use of paid time off, at the nurses’ discretion,” according to a statement to FierceHealthcare. 

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Schildmeier said that the union didn’t have an issue with voluntary furloughs, but Tenet told the union that if the hospital doesn’t get enough volunteers then it will implement mandatory furloughs.

“It hasn’t happened yet, but that is what we are worried about,” he said.

Schildmeier pointed to a furlough of 480 staff in Detroit Medical Center announced earlier this week as a concern.

“Under Tenet’s proposal what we are afraid of is what is happening in Detroit,” he added.

Tenet also charged that the union tried to add a last-minute proposal to protect prime-time vacation, which the system said was a “surprising and questionable demand to make during a public health crisis.”

But that charge is false, the union countered.

Schildmeier said that during the talks that Tenet floated that any changes may be extended into the summer.

So the union asked to talk about “how to allocate vacation time as a result of these changes. They said we can’t, and so we said, ‘OK, that isn’t important to us.’”

The union is also angry that Tenet is even pursuing furloughs as the system is expected to get $1.3 billion from a $100 billion fund to help prop up hospitals. The major hospital system announced a few weeks ago furloughs of 500 people in corporate, non-patient care positions.

Nearly every facility is having financial issues due to a decline in patient volume and the cancellation of elective surgeries, which are major moneymakers for hospitals. Several other systems are implementing furloughs of noncritical hospital staff such as Trinity Health and Bon Secours.

However, Tenet also told investors during a conference call that it has about $350 million in excess cash and about $1 billion of borrowing capacity.

“Everybody understands they lost revenue, that is why the federal government appropriated $100 billion to hospitals and Medicare sending money directly to the accounts,” Schildmeier said. “The idea that we lost revenue is no longer an argument. They have the money.”