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'Stretched Way Too Thin': Nurses Picket for More Staffing at Cape Cod Hospital

Jennette Barnes
Registered nurses held an informational picket on the corner of Main Street, near Cape Cod Hospital, calling for higher staffing levels. Their union is renegotiating the nurses' contract with Cape Cod Healthcare.

Registered nurses picketed outside Cape Cod Hospital on Wednesday, saying they need more nurses on each shift.

About 50 nurses and a few other supporters gathered by mid afternoon. Some stood on the sidewalk near the hospital, and others a block away at the Main Street corner.

Eunice Grew, who works in a cardiac step-down unit, said a lot of young nurses are leaving to go elsewhere for a better staff-to-patient ratio.

“It just keeps getting worse,” she said. “And the nurses are overworked and unable to take care of the patients the way they should be able to — safely.”

Many held printed signs that said, “Cape Cod patients deserve safe staffing,” and a hand-drawn sign proclaimed, “Patients before profits.”

The group cheered when drivers of a passing ambulance and tractor trailer sounded their horns.

Cape Cod Healthcare and the labor union that represents registered nurses, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, have been renegotiating their contract since last fall.

The company said it agreed to the union’s proposed raises, but nurses on the picket line said staffing is what concerns them most.

“We don't get breaks,” said Frances Canizaro, a nurse who works on an orthopedic and neurosurgical floor at Cape Cod Hospital. “Frequently we don't get lunch.”

She said nurses used to be told to call a supervisor for help when they needed a break.

“But it didn't work,” she said. “The supervisors could never come. They were too busy.”

Another picket is scheduled for May 26 at 2 p.m. outside Falmouth Hospital.

Cape Cod Healthcare officials said in a written statement that the company values the work and dedication of its employees.

“We look forward to agreeing to contracts for [Cape Cod Hospital] and [Falmouth Hospital] that are fair to our nurses, patients, the communities, and that recognize the economic and workforce staffing realities facing all hospitals,” the company said.

Patrick Kane, senior vice president for communications, told CAI that outside indicators of quality show the hospitals’ staffing levels are safe. He pointed to Cape Cod Hospital’s receipt of a 2021 Patient Safety Excellence Award from Healthgrades.

But union co-chair Michelle Brum said patients shouldn't have to wait 10 or 20 minutes for a nurse to respond.

“It's been going on for quite a few years now,” she said of the staffing issue. “And nurses are overwhelmed, overworked, and want to give the best possible care they can give to their patients, and they’re stretched way too thin.”

The union has asked that each floor’s charge nurse — an experienced nurse who serves as a leader and coordinator — not be assigned individual patients, so the charge nurse can be available to assist other nurses with complex cases.

According to Cape Cod Healthcare, the nonprofit health corporation has agreed to wage increases of 3% retroactive to October 1, 2020; 2% this year and next; and 3% in 2023. Those do not include annual step increases; the average annual step increase is 5.7 percent.

“Over 57% of our nurses are at the top of the wage scale with a base hourly rate of $58.50, not including differentials and premium pay,” Cape Cod Healthcare said in a statement.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association advocated for a statewide ballot question in 2018 that would have set mandatory limits on the number of patients assigned to a nurse. The Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association opposed it, and it was defeated at the ballot box.

CORRECTION: The date of the second picket is May 26, not May 20th, as reported in an earlier version of this story.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.