The Day – Hartford HealthCare, Backus nurses resuming contract talks

A Hartford HealthCare official said today the hospital network that includes Backus Hospital in Norwich is “working diligently to come to an agreement” with the Backus Federation of Nurses, the union that has threatened to stage a two-day strike next week over contract demands.

The parties are resuming negotiations this evening, according to a union spokesman.

During a virtual press conference this morning, Dr. Ajay Kumar, Hartford HealthCare’s chief clinical officer, said he has “tremendous respect” for the Backus nurses and that Hartford HealthCare has “a commitment to the community” to provide “consistent service.” He said Backus has developed a contingency plan that it’s ready to implement should a strike occur.

On Friday, the 415-member union provided Backus officials with notice of its intention to strike from 7 a.m. Oct. 13 to 7 a.m. Oct. 15, barring a contract settlement or significant progress toward one before then. Issues being negotiated include pay and COVID-19 protections.

Kumar reported this morning that Backus is treating 19 patients with the coronavirus disease, the most of any of Hartford HealthCare’s seven acute-care hospitals. The hospitals have a total of 52 COVID-19 patients, including 16 at Hartford Hospital. Kumar said the numbers reflect recent outbreaks of the disease in the Norwich, New London and Hartford areas.

Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London reported this morning it has nine COVID-19 patients.

Kumar also said Hartford HealthCare has appealed the more than $13,000 in fines the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has imposed over alleged violations at Natchaug Hospital, a Mansfield psychiatric facility Hartford HealthCare owns.

“We do not agree with some of the findings OSHA put forward,” Kumar said. “It’s a very complicated matter.”

OSHA has alleged that Natchaug violated rules regarding respiratory protections for employees and failed to properly record eight cases of COVID-19 among staff members.

“The federal workplace safety agency’s citations were an opportunity for Natchaug management and Hartford HealthCare executives to do the right thing,” Jennifer Pratt, a Natchaug nurse who contracted COVID-19 at Natchaug, said in a statement. “They shouldn’t attempt to rationalize why they allowed their caregivers to be exposed to the deadly virus. They should instead take the necessary steps to protect us now, especially as cases in eastern Connecticut tick upward.”

Pratt belongs to the union that represents nurses and other health care workers at Natchaug. The union filed the complaints that prompted OSHA’s investigation of the facility.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com