Sunday, June 16, 2024

A visitor steps over a Cambridge Health Alliance mat at the CHA Somerville Campus on Oct. 31. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The union representing nurses at Cambridge Health Alliance held a press conference Monday at CHA’s administrative offices in Malden to denounce plans to lay off five nurses at the end of June. The Massachusetts Nurses Association said the loss of the nurse-educators, who help newly trained and hired nurses with support and professional advice, will hurt patients and staff.

“Cutting our nurse educators is a bad decision, and it will impact the safe care of our patients,” said Suzy Dailey, a nurse and union co-chair at Cambridge Hospital, in a press release. “Experienced nurses are not staying at CHA because the hospital chooses not to invest in retention. As a result, CHA continues to over-rely on expensive travel nurses and newer, less-experienced nurses who very much need the support and expertise of nurse educators.”

Union members said the loss of the five positions will require each one of the remaining nurse-educators to cover a “service line” such as psychiatry, medical/surgical or childbirth “across all three campuses” of the health care system: Cambridge, Somerville and Everett. That means newer nurses will have to wait longer for help, they said.

CHA spokesperson David Cecere said some of the remaining nurse-educators “may support units across hospitals” but some won’t. The five layoffs are part of many more job cuts planned by the system that started Thursday – 84 employees who will lose their jobs or have their hours cut – because of losses that could reach $45 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, according to an estimate by the Alliance’s chief financial officer last month. The system had lost almost $42 million on health care operations as of April 30, the first 10 months of the current fiscal year, according to its most recent financial report made public.

Referring to the nurse-educator positions as part of the overall job cuts, Cecere said: “Our recent staffing changes focused on management, administrative and support personnel. As part of these staffing changes and after very careful consideration, we decided to restructure our nursing education department. We wanted to ensure that patient-facing nurses were not impacted … We feel confident we can meet the educational needs of our staff with our restructured nursing education department.”

Cecere also paid tribute to nurses, saying: “Cambridge Health Alliance’s nurses make incredible contributions to the lives of our patients every day, and they are an essential part of our team.”

Meanwhile, the Alliance has agreed to preserve “at least” four positions at the Cambridge Public Health Department in return for an extra $416,000 from the city, City Manager Yi-An Huang said in a budget discussion Monday with the City Council. The added money will bring the city’s total payment to the Alliance for operating the department in the coming fiscal year to $8.3 million, Huang said.

The change came after councillors challenged rumored plans to eliminate seven to 10 jobs at the health department; in a hearing on the city budget for the 2024 fiscal year they refused to approve the budgeted contractural payment of $7.9 million and asked that the health department be “fully funded.”

Saving five, losing two

The department will still lose two employees, according to a message from CHA chief executive Assaad Sayah to councillors. Sayah said the Alliance planned originally to lay off seven workers but will now keep five. He said the city offered to provide enough money to save all seven positions, but the Alliance decided to accept funds for five and include two workers in the “restructuring.” Sayah said none of the job cuts will reduce services.

These details weren’t made public at Monday’s council meeting, when councillors discussed the request that the health department be “fully funded.” Huang did say that “some” positions would be eliminated but didn’t say how many. He also said the health department, not CHA, had made the decision.

Councillor Patty Nolan shone more light on the council’s unhappiness with the health department job cuts. “It was disappointing to many of us how the decision was made to have layoffs of people when some of the positions in the department are unfilled,” she said. She and Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon said they plan hearings to examine the relationship between the Alliance and the city health department and whether it should be changed.

Real estate questions

The city-owned building at 105 Windsor St., The Port. (Photo: Google)

Councillors also discussed their request for repairs to the CHA clinic at 119 Windsor St., which also houses the public health department. Huang said the city will assess the building’s condition and wants to broaden the discussion to include two other buildings leased to CHA: a long-vacant former clinic at 205 Western Ave. and a building at 105 Windsor St., which now houses a community arts program that Mallon said is important to the neighboring community.

Deputy city manager Owen O’Riordan said the city agrees that “there are some significant needs” at the Windsor Street. clinic “in terms of its building envelope” and heating and air-conditioning equipment. After an evaluation and feasibility study “we can then have a further discussion with the City Council as to how best to address those in the not-too-distant future, recognizing the importance of that building,” he said. O’Riordan also pointed out that the lease agreement for the clinic calls for the Alliance to maintain it.

A muddled picture

The layoffs at the Alliance and saved jobs at the health department left a muddled picture. The Alliance has not disclosed whether any of the planned 84 cuts were at the health department, and neither have city officials. In fact, most in city government have not mentioned the substantial layoffs planned by the Alliance. In a statement after the job reductions became known in May, Huang, who previously worked as an administrator at Boston Medical Center, expressed sympathy for CHA and did not speak of the employees who will lose their jobs. Most councillors also were silent about the cuts except for positions at the health department. Councillor Quinton Zondervan was one exception, saying in an email: “We have no control or influence over the remaining layoffs/cuts. Of course it is abhorrent that our health care infrastructure is being cut back, especially to a safety net hospital system that is for many people in Cambridge and other nearby communities their only option for health care. This is why we need Medicare for all!”

Neither the city nor the Alliance has provided details about which jobs or workers will be cut at CHA or the health department; Cecere has said in general that they perform administrative, support and management services.

The nurses’ union is in negotiations for a new contract starting July 1. It represents 902 nurses at Cambridge Hospital, Everett Hospital and the CHA Somerville campus.

The union said it will “bring the issue of layoffs” to the contract negotiations and expects to reach agreement by June 30, with “much-needed improvements in staffing, working conditions and wages in place.” The press conference Monday was held after a negotiating session.

Cecere said negotiations are occurring “in the midst of industrywide challenges and pressures that have led us to adjust our staffing levels and other expenses. We strive to be an employer of choice, prioritizing fair wages and benefits for our employees.” He said the Alliance has “several negotiation sessions upcoming, and we are confident we will come to an agreement that is fair, supports outstanding patient care and reflects the tremendous respect we have for our nurses.”