HOULTON, Maine – The National Labor Relations Board has charged the Houlton Regional Hospital with engaging in unfair labor practices after the hospital stopped paying incentive bonuses to unionized nurses without warning, according to a complaint filed by the board.
The decision to stop paying bonuses did not give the union the opportunity to bargain, according to the NLRB complaint.
When Maine State Nurses Association Local 296 asked the hospital to negotiate or return to offering the bonus payments to nurses who worked additional shifts, the hospital did not, the NLRB complaint states.
The hospital was notified of the NLRB charges in May and that the labor relations board is investigating. The board has asked the hospital to submit a complete written account of the facts and a statement about the allegations, according to documents released in a recent FOIA request filed by the Bangor Daily News.
Because of continuing understaffing issues, the Houlton Regional Hospital put the $400 incentive bonus in place to get shifts staffed with hospital nurses and avoid the costs of paying traveling nurses for these shifts, said CJ Betit, labor representative for the union.
“The nurses had to work their normal status first, full-time is 36 hours, the bonus was for picking up an extra shift beyond that,” he said.
At a time when it is not uncommon for hospitals to offer incentive bonuses to nursing staff to cover unfilled vacancies, Houlton Regional Hospital chose to stop the practice.
Members of the hospital administration did not return calls regarding the decision and the NLRB complaint.
There are about 50 unionized nurses at the Houlton hospital, according to the union.
Last year, the nurses approved a new three-year contract that included 19 to 21 percent wage increases, an added emergency department shift and a guaranteed employer retirement plan match.
Houlton Regional Hospital originally offered the bonus payment to the emergency room nurses, labor and delivery and to the medical surgical unit because those units were all short staffed, Betit said.
The reason the union filed the charges with the NLRB is that it wasn’t a contractual term so it is not a grievance, but the hospital still can’t make a unilateral change, Betit said.
“Our contention is that before the hospital dropped it, they needed to negotiate with the union,” he said.
The Houlton hospital is understaffed and has a lot of travelers there now making more than twice what the union nurses are making, Betit said.
Traveling nurses earn up to $180 per hour, while the average salary for a full-time nurse is about $29 per hour, he said.
The state is projected to be short about 2,250 registered nurses by 2025, according to a report by the Maine Hospital Association and the Maine Nursing Action Coalition.
While the Houlton hospital stopped paying incentive bonuses, Maine’s Northern Light facilities started offering up to $15,000 sign-on bonuses for nursing staff in May to offset shortages. And hospitals around the nation are offering incentive bonuses to nurses for extra shifts, health care experts said.
According to Betit, the hospital is not willing to change its decision.
The National Labor Relations Board will make a determination on the complaint at a later date.