A dispute over leadership and working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic has led nurses, lab workers and other employees at Calais Regional Hospital to call a two-day strike, starting next Wednesday.
The strike notice follows a nearly unanimous strike authorization vote last week, according to the Maine State Nurses Association, which represents 50 workers at the hospital.
At issue, the nurses say, is the poor leadership of the hospital’s chief executive, Rod Boula. They blame Boula for a range of alleged problems, including dangerous working conditions and irresponsible spending practices.
In a response statement, the hospital said it was “saddened” that union members would strike while the pandemic was bearing down on the community, but that the facility was prepared to maintain essential, emergency services.
The hospital said it began last year developing a detailed plan to respond to a strike notice. It said there is sufficient skilled non-union staff available to provide clinical services. If necessary, it said it could bring in temporary skilled nurses and technicians with experience covering services at striking facilities.
Some elective procedures, as well as COVID-19 testing, might be suspended during the period, the hospital added.
A hospital spokeswoman also told the Portland Press Herald that it generally does not treat COVID-19 patients, but that it does have space to keep such patients in isolation and care for them until they can be moved to a hospital that provides more extensive services.
The pending strike is the latest challenge for Calais Regional, a 25-bed hospital that serves a largely rural population in northeastern Washington County and is among the largest employers in the area. The hospital filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September 2019, an action it blamed on years of declining patient use, high levels of charity care and bad debt, among other things.
In a statement, the workers said a recent COVID-19 outbreak in the hospital had made them even more concerned for their health and safety, as well as that of their patients. They claimed that the hospital didn’t enforce universal masking until concerns were raised.
The aggrieved workers are calling on the hospital’s board of directors to terminate Boula’s contract.
“The future of our hospital is in the hands of the board of directors,” said Alison Monaghan, a registered nurse at the hospital. “They have a real opportunity, right now, to do the right thing and save our hospital.”
For its part, the hospital’s administration stressed the need for sound fiscal management. It made no mention of the dispute over its chief executive, explaining instead how management was trying to negotiate with the union over issues centered on health insurance and paid time off. The statement also said only 17 percent of the workforce was represented by the union and that safety concerns are being mischaracterized.
“This strike,” the hospital said, “is at a time when our community need is high and we find it hard to picture how this choice is beneficial ‘for our patient’ or ‘patient safety’, which is a common theme misused by unions during health organization strikes – even when the dissenting issues are not based on safety.”
Staff Writer Colin Woodard contributed to this story.