The time-old chant of “what do we want?” and “when do we want it?” could be heard outside of Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield Monday afternoon.
Roughly 40 hospital employees lined up in frigid conditions with signs reading, “be fair to those who care,” hanging from their necks to protest the hospital’s proposed plan to drop employee pensions in favor of a 401K plan.
“We feel like they are trying to bully us. They’re not really talking to us. We are saying ‘let’s work and negotiate,’ and they’re saying ‘nope, we’re not going to talk about your pension,’” Scott Lucas, a mental health worker at the hospital, said about the plan to drop pensions, negotiations for which have been in progress since July.
The current contract change means a promised pension suddenly will become a 401K and paid time off decreases for nine of the hospital’s staff departments. These changes would affect more than 180 employees, including staff in the dietary, housekeeping, kitchen, maintenance, mental health and reception units, among others.
The hospital is looking to make the change to save money, according its administration. However, employees have not been told what the saved money will be used for.
As Hartford HealthCare has gradually taken control of Natchaug Hospital over the past decade, negotiations have included little mentioning of employee pensions, said Michelle Tucat, a certified occupational therapist assistant who has been at the hospital for 17 years.
Ever since former founder of the hospital employees’ union, David Lucier, retired last year, Hartford HealthCare doesn’t seem to want to negotiate anymore, Tucat said.
The main goal of holding a rally was to remind executives that, “if they are fair to (us), we will be fair to (them),” Tucat said. “We really feel like a corporation is coming in and taking from us what we don’t deserve to be taken from.”
Employees in the mental health department have been the most adamant in the fight to keep pensions.
Working with patients who suffer from mental health disorders is especially taxing and can cause a high physical and emotional toll, said several current employees at the rally.
Employees are often injured on the job by their patients, Tucat said, whose husband had been let go after a serious back injury caused by an altercation with a patient.
To take away fair compensation is to degrade the work people do for their patients, Lucas said.
“A nice retirement and nice benefits keeps people here for a long time. When they are here for a long time they get a lot of experience in a very chaotic environment and when they have a lot of experience, nothing rattles them anymore and they are very, very good to the patients,” Lucas said.
Tucat echoed the concerned sentiment of many current employees by saying certain consistencies, like seeing a familiar face, puts returning patients at ease. Additionally, by supplementing the pension plan, the hospital could risk making the hiring process of new employees a revolving door and consequently limit the quality of care.
“If you demoralize the employees here, it makes it very difficult for us to work,” Lucas said. “We feel we are very righteous in what we’re doing here and I would hate for it to ever be perceived as greedy and they’re just like – no, we are being bullied by somebody who has just come in and said this is the way its going to be for these guys. And people have spent decades doing the right thing by these people and no ones getting rich here.”
This isn’t the first time there has been a strike at Natchaug Hospital.
The Defying Benefit Fund was established by the hospital’s first union in 1983, and in 1986, their first strike set a tone of willfulness that remains today.
“It’s not that we hate them, its not that we think they are bad people, but we have a right to do that (strike) and we did,” said Lucier, who worked at the hospital for 36 years.
Bailey Wright is associate managing editor and associate photo editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.