More than 400 nurses at Backus Hospital went on strike Tuesday, two days after the hospital and the union representing the nurses failed to reach a new contract agreement during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Backus Federation of Nurses, under AFT Connecticut, launched the strike Tuesday morning with a rally outside the hospital.
“Nurses do not take the decision to strike lightly," said Shanon Pereira, a registered nurse at Backus Hospital. "We choose to strike only when it becomes a matter of life and death for our patients.”
The nurses said that they would rather be with their patients, but called the strike a "last resort."
“We are only out here because we have to be. It is not because we want to be,” said Meagan Muriel, a registered nurse at Backus Hospital.
Hospital officials said they made every effort to avoid a strike. In a statement, Donna Handley, president of Backus Hospital, said that they held 23 bargaining sessions and used federal mediators to address issues.
"This is heartbreaking," Handley wrote in the statement. "The union, unfortunately, is prepared to strike, causing an unprecedented degree of disruption during an unprecedented health crisis."
During the rally Tuesday, nurses said they have not been provided proper access to personal protective equipment. They also raised concerns over staffing.
"We cannot allow unfair labor practices to continue," said Pereira.
According to Handley, Backus has worked to address issues including PPE, staffing, and accommodations for breastfeeding. Additionally, Handley wrote that the hospital has offered "significant" wage increases for all RNs over the three-year contract, amounting to 12.5% over three years.
However, Sherri Dayton, president of Backus Federation of Nurses, said that the increase would still amount to less than what nurses are paid in area hospitals.
“We are fighting for competitive wages that are equal to the other area hospitals, the other HHC (Hartford HealthCare) hospitals, so we can retain nurses to give good care," Dayton said.
The strike comes as the Norwich area experiences an uptick in COVID-19 cases.
During the strike, the hospital will remain open. Staff from the Department of Public Health are on site to assist with replacement staff if necessary. They will also monitor conditions to ensure that safety standards are being upheld.
“We at the Department of Public Health are hoping that both labor and management at Backus Hospital can work out their differences soon so this strike can end, but in the meantime we are doing our duty to ensure continuity of quality care and safety for patients,” Acting DPH Commissioner Deidre Gifford wrote in a statement.
This is the first time that the Backus Nurses have gone on strike, according to the union. The strike is set to conclude at 7 a.m. on Thursday.
"We are hoping that with this last resort we can really get what we need and recruit some more nurses with comparable wages," Muriel said.