About 50 members of Maine Medical Center’s nurses’ union protested outside the Portland hospital Thursday, decrying working conditions and staffing shortages and demanding that hospital executives do more to attract and retain employees.

Holding signs that read “Staff Up for Safe Care,” they said more nurses are needed at Maine Med as the COVID-19 pandemic continues nearly two years after it began.

The protest was part of a national “day of action” organized by National Nurses United, the parent union of the Maine State Nurses Association. But it comes as the state association negotiates its first contract with Maine Med management on behalf of about 1,900 nurses who formed a union at the hospital in April 2021.

“Throughout the pandemic, nurses keep on showing up every day in very untenable conditions,” said Meg Dionne, an emergency department nurse. Dionne said that before the pandemic, each nurse in the department cared for about four patients during a shift, but now it’s not uncommon to have five. “We are worth these investments and deserve these investments.”

Dionne said there is “not a nursing shortage, but a shortage of nurses willing to work in the hospital.” Dionne, who is 31 weeks pregnant, said one example of how Maine Med should value nurses more would be to have maternity benefits include more paid time off, especially in the weeks leading up to birth, so she and others can avoid a COVID-19 infection during that time.

Hospitalizations have soared during the delta and omicron surges this fall and winter. Maine’s hospitals were caring for 436 COVID-19 patients statewide Thursday, with 103 in critical care. And as hospitalizations have increased, chronic staffing shortages have been made worse by the fast-spreading omicron variant.

But Clay Holtzman, Maine Med spokesman, said in a statement that the “staffing crisis in health care is a challenge for our country and our community.”

“It is a long-term problem that is driven by many factors made worse by the pandemic,” Holtzman said. “At Maine Medical Center, we have worked endlessly to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of our entire care team during every phase of the pandemic while also retaining, recruiting, promoting and engaging one of the very best nursing teams in the country.”

Amy Downer, an operating room nurse at Maine Medical Center, joins fellow nurses to demand increased workplace protections. The rally was one of many National Nurses United demonstrations held across the country Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Holtzman said Maine Med has invested in its nurses, giving them $10.5 million in pay increases in December.

MaineHealth, parent company of Maine Med and seven other hospitals in the state, provided its employees with $7.6 million in quarantine pay and $3.2 million in child care assistance last year, tightened visitation rules to help keep infections down in all its hospitals and implemented other safety measures. Maine Med is the company’s only unionized hospital.

“The hospital added more than 400 new (nurses) to its workforce in the last year alone and is working to fill open positions. To fill these gaps, we bring in experienced traveling nurses, many of whom have asked to extend their contracts during the pandemic due to the quality and safety of our work environment,” Holtzman said in a statement.

But Jonica Frank, an operating room nurse who often cares for COVID-19 patients, said part of the problem is a failure to retain nurses who have specialized skills. In her unit, it takes six to nine months for a nurse to be fully trained.

“We don’t have enough staff to cover all our operating rooms,” Frank said.

And Janel Crowley, a neonatal intensive care nurse, said the hospital is so short-staffed that nurses sometimes can only spend a little time with each patient during a shift. She said Maine Med needs to put “patients over profits” and called recent hiring efforts a “Band-aid.”

“We feel like we are expendable,” Crowley said.

Annika Moltz, who works in the medical-surgical unit, said individual nurses in that unit used to care for three patients per shift, but now it’s up to four to six patients.

“We are being completely overwhelmed,” Moltz said.

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