Maine Medical Center’s nurses’ union accused hospital management Wednesday of heightening workplace risks by withdrawing benefits that were provided to protect employees earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic.

But hospital officials said part of the reason benefits are changing is because of a complex web of federal rules that they have to follow.

Included among the changes is a provision to no longer give quarantine pay to employees who are exposed to COVID-19 in the community or at home. Those employees will be required to use their own paid time off or, if they can, work from home. Also, Maine Med is no longer allowing employees who are pregnant to go home with full pay after the 37th week of pregnancy through when they give birth.

The added pregnancy benefit meant nurses didn’t have to use any of their paid-time off allowance or other maternity benefits after the 37th week, but that benefit is slated to end Oct. 1.

Madison Light, a Maine Med nurse, said at a news conference outside the hospital on Wednesday, that nurses and other health care workers are “exhausted, frustrated and stretched to their physical and emotional limits.” Nurses at Maine Med voted to form a union in late April, joining the Maine State Nurses Association. The union, which represents about 2,000 Maine Med nurses, is currently negotiating an initial contract with the hospital.

“Last year, Maine Med did some really good things. Things that protected us and our patients and made life a little better under incredibly difficult circumstances,” Light said. “Over the past couple of weeks, Maine Med has told us that they are ending all of these protections, not just for nurses, but for all Maine Med employees.”

Light said nurses were told that since health care workers are now required to be vaccinated under a state mandate, the worker protections “are no longer necessary.”

“But as nurses, we know that vaccines, as critical as they are to ending this pandemic, are not a silver bullet,” Light said. “And we also know that, in the middle of a spike of infections, from a fast-moving variant, this is not the time to remove the protections that have helped both staff and patients here.”

Another benefit for Maine Med workers that could go away Oct. 1 is full payment of the cost of any COVID-19 treatment, including any co-pays, deductibles, cost sharing or coinsurance payments that normally would be the responsibility of the patient.

John Porter, a spokesman for MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center, said the hospital is sorting through a thicket federal rules and regulations surrounding that benefit, but extending the benefit beyond Oct. 1 is “under discussion.”

Clay Holtzman, a spokesman for Maine Med, said that “nurses and our entire care team are doing an extraordinary job caring for our community under what are incredibly challenging circumstances during the latest COVID-19 surge. The frustrations of our nurses and other care team members are understandable, and (Maine Med) remains committed to doing all we can to support them through this challenging time.”

Holtzman said the changes to quarantine pay align with recommendations from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He said employees who are infected with COVID-19 still receive full quarantine pay, but those who are exposed in the community or at home but not infected do not. Depending on circumstances, someone who was exposed and under quarantine but not infected may have a short quarantine of a few days, Holtzman said.

Nurses said they were told MaineHealth’s policy to give “medical accommodations” to alter schedules and working conditions for employees at high risk of contracting COVID-19 is ending. But Holtzman said the policy remains in place.

Amy Strum, an emergency room nurse, said the hospital has seen an influx of COVID-19 patients, and it’s making it difficult for the staff to keep up.

“Breaks are almost non-existent,” Strum said. “We are under a lot of stress. Often we have to pull nurses from other units to come over to the COVID unit.”

Hospitals statewide are seeing a surge of patients sick with COVID-19, with 150 inpatients Wednesday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s the highest number hospitalized since Feb. 4, at the height of the pandemic.


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