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Tufts talks with nurses going down to the wire

Nurses at Tufts Medical Center have said they would strike on Friday if a labor agreement is not reached. Nurses at Tufts Medical Center have said they would strike on Friday if a labor agreement is not reached. (George Rizer/ Globe Staff/ File 2008)
By Liz Kowalczyk
Globe Staff / May 4, 2011

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Tufts Medical Center nurses and management met for 20 hours Sunday and Monday and were close to agreeing on a new contact that would avert a strike on Friday. But as often happens with serious labor-management disputes, the nurses won’t decide whether to strike on Friday until the very last minute. Another negotiating session is not scheduled until tomorrow.

Nurses said yesterday that one last issue stands in the way of a resolution: whether nurses on the day and evening shifts at the Boston teaching hospital can be required to care for six patients at a time, or whether they win language limiting the maximum number of patients to five.

Nurses say caring for more than five patients is unsafe. Hospital executives respond that nurses almost always care for no more than five patients now — but they want the flexibility to increase that number, depending on patients’ conditions.

The two sides have reached a compromise on staff levels on the overnight shift and in the intensive care units.

“We’re hoping, but we are not there yet,’’ said Barbara Tiller, chairwoman of the Tufts bargaining unit of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

The hospital is not taking any chances. About 200 temporary nurses began flying into Boston Monday and all are expected to be here by today, in case there is a strike. The hospital will train them today and tomorrow.

“We have to be prepared,’’ said Nancy Shendell-Falik, Tufts’ chief nursing officer.

Nurses notified the hospital last week that they would walk off the job for one day on Friday if the dispute over patient-to-nurse ratios is not resolved. A mediator has called a final session for tomorrow at 10 a.m.

Negotiations also continue at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, where the nurses association is also threatening to strike on Friday.

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.