More than 400 nurses at a Connecticut hospital began a two-day strike Tuesday over what union leaders called low wages and struggles to get enough personal protective equipment.
Dozens of nurses hit the picket line outside the William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich in rainy weather and held signs saying "Nurses on strike for unfair labor practice" and "PPE over profits."
The strike comes amid a breakdown in contract talks between the nurses' union and hospital management, as well as rising coronavirus cases in Norwich and other eastern Connecticut communities.
The Backus Federation of Nurses, AFT Local 5149, and hospital management have been in contract negotiations since June. Unionized nurses voted to authorize a strike last month.
Donna Handley, president of Backus and Windham hospitals, said in a statement that Backus will remain open and called the strike "heartbreaking." She said nurses have been offered "significant" wage increases — 12.5% over three years — along with additional paid time off and a 2% decrease in health care premiums.
"The hospital has made every effort to avoid a strike," said Handley, who is a nurse herself. "We are prepared to find common ground, and we want to reach agreement on a fair contract. The union, unfortunately, is prepared to strike, causing an unprecedented degree of disruption during an unprecedented health crisis."
Sherri Dayton, a nurse and president of the Backus Federation of Nurses, AFT Local 5149, said Backus nurses have been paid less than those at other area hospitals for years and have not had sufficient personal protective equipment during the pandemic. Nurses, like many around the country, are having to reuse N95 masks repeatedly, she told The Associated Press earlier this month.
"You use it until it's soiled or compromised and they really need to change the policy to, you really don't need to use it longer than eight hours," she said.
She said in recent months, 11 staff on one floor of Backus were infected with the coronavirus by a patient from a local nursing home, three more employees in the critical care unit were infected and another worker tested positive after caring for a patient in the emergency room.
"A lot of nurses are scared," Dayton said, "and the reason for that is, is because when they test positive, we get blamed by the hospital."
Southeastern Connecticut had a relatively low infection rate during the early months of the pandemic. But in recent weeks, there's been an uptick in cases. On Monday, state and local officials urged residents of the region to get tested for COVID-19 and be careful around friends, family members and co-workers.