Labor and delivery nurses at St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford, now in the midst of contract negotiations, are asserting that the facility's maternity unit is understaffed and "in chaos."

Registered nurses affiliated with the Massachusetts Nurses Association demonstrated on the sidewalk outside the hospital on Tuesday afternoon. They said that Southcoast Health should improve staffing levels at St. Luke's Family Centered Unit, or FCU, and pay nurses a higher wage "to make St. Luke's a competitive employer able to recruit and train the nurses we need."

"We are really stretched to the limit, and  burned out," said Karen Corbut, an FCU nurse. "We really would like them to negotiate in earnest with us across the table. We have made proposals and had multiple meetings with management through negotiations and in private meetings. And we would really like some better responses; some positive responses to our requests."

Nurses marched into the hospital building and headed to CEO Keith Hovan's office in an attempt to hand him a petition. Nobody emerged from Hovan's office to accept the document, so the message was not delivered, nurses said.

Update: Southcoast Health public information officer Shawn Badgley disputed that statement on Wednesday, saying an employee did offer to accept the petition on Tuesday and was rejected by the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

"We are chronically understaffed, often don't have the support we need, and a combination of being overworked and underpaid compared to similar hospitals in the region has contributed to a high rate of turnover," the petition reads. "This has recently been exacerbated by Southcoast's decision to close Tobey maternity without an adequate plan for how we would deal with the increased births at St. Luke's."

At the end of December, Southcoast closed its maternity ward at Tobey Hospital in Wareham and directed pregnant women from that area to St. Luke's, a hospital 20 miles away, with promises of state-of-the-art maternity care at an expanded Women and Children’s Pavilion.

Nurses on Tuesday said the promise has yet to be fully delivered.

Nurses at the FCU seek "immediate relief from staffing problems that are negatively affecting patient care conditions and nurse morale," said Joe Markman, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

Markman said the hospital "has not been respecting and not been listening to the nurses."

Southcoast Health responded to the allegations on Wednesday, saying there has been no increase in patient volume since Tobey's maternity ward closed down.

"The number of births at St. Luke’s is within the normal range for January 1, 2020, to the present, as measured year over year," wrote Southcoast spokesman Badgley. "There has been no increase in patient volume since transitioning Tobey’s maternity services. In fact, the only thing increasing at St. Luke’s since transitioning Tobey’s maternity services is the number of dedicated, professional, and empathetic nurses who now provide high-quality care here. We’re grateful for them and the wonderful work they do day in and day out. Unfortunately, political theater like Tuesday’s event only distracts from and disrupts that work."

Badgley said there is a mutually agreed-upon structure in place for ongoing negotiations between the MNA and Southcoast Health, and criticized the nurses' public action.

"These sessions take place approximately once a week at a neutral location in order to foster constructive and respectful dialogue – in contrast to Tuesday’s tactics, which only politicize patient care to further the MNA’s agenda and are not representative of our outstanding nurses."

Southcoast has touted its $14 million investment in the Women and Children's Pavilion at St. Luke's while extolling its "outstanding staff and providers, including Boston Children’s Hospital specialists."

Southcoast also maintains that St. Luke's is prepared to handle extra patients from the Wareham area.

"The Women and Children’s Pavilion at St. Luke’s currently facilitates upward of 1,500 deliveries annually; St. Luke’s can absorb Tobey’s delivery volume," the healthcare group states on its website. In 2019, there were only 364 deliveries at Tobey, a number that Southcoast has called "unsustainable."

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