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Nurses protest wage earnings, seek raises

Date: 6/13/2014

AGAWAM – Nurses working for the Agawam Public School District are fighting to increase their wages, which they say are hindering the ability to maintain its nursing staff and necessary since nurses deal with more than cuts and bruises.
A picket line of nurses and supporters has greeted attendees at the past few City Council meetings. At the June 2 meeting, Agawam High School nurse Mary Pasteris, RN, BSN, NCSN, spoke during the Citizen’s Speak Time. She noted that the nursing staff had 41,280 office visits during the last school year and has already handled 40,000 visits this year. She explained that the students have a “myriad of complex diagnoses” that require medication management that account for just over 8,850 of the visits.
“We’re unable to attract and retain professional school nurses because they won’t pay professional wages,” Pasteris, who has worked with the school district for 19 years, said. “We care for your most valuable commodity – your children.”
According to Pasteris, the nursing staff currently consists of eight full-time nurses and one part-time nurse and most of the schools have special needs programs. She stated that retaining nurses provides the best care for the students since they have a familiarity with the students and their medical needs.
“We started losing nurses five years ago,” Pasteris told Reminder Publications. “We lost six full-time nurses and one part-time nurse.” She stated Robinson Park School has employed three different nurses in the past four years.
After losing staff, Pasteris decided to research the average wages of nurses in the surrounding areas. She found that nurses in nearby communities earned $59,000 annually for the 2011-2012 school year and typically start between $40,000 to $42,000. Pasteris earns $47,000 annually. “At first I was in shock, then I got angry. My girls will never see that,” she commented.
Mayor Richard Cohen addressed the situation in a written statement. He wrote, “As I have stated previously, I do not believe it is productive to negotiate in the press. However, I also believe that the public has a right to accurate information. Therefore, I have decided to provide this brief statement. 
“The parties have been negotiating for a short period of time. The bargaining unit chose to change to a different union. The town indicated throughout the process that it would recognize whichever union was successful in the election. The town signed an Agreement of Consent Election, which waived a hearing and instead allowed for an earlier election. Once this process was completed, the parties commenced negotiations.
“In regard to the economic position of the parties, the association has only released one aspect of the town’s proposal (i.e., the general wage increase). In this regard, the town has offered the same wage increase that all other bargaining units have received (i.e., 5 percent increase over three years). However, in an attempt to address the concerns raised by the association, the town also proposed to eliminate the two lowest paying steps. Further, the town proposed to add an additional $1,000 to the two highest paying steps effective July 1 and again on July 1, 2015. These additional proposals were included in the initial economic proposal submitted by the town. The proposals provide a means to address the concerns of the Association by both increasing the salary for new employees as well as increasing pay for employees who have longevity with the town.
“The town remains hopeful that the parties can reach an amicable resolution and continues to support and value the hard work performed by the nurses on behalf of our town,” Cohen concluded.
“The mayor hasn’t treated us as professionals the entire time he’s been in office. We’re just as much as fault because we agreed to it [the wage contracts] without researching,” Pasteris said.
She stated that the nurses that have left did so to earn wages to support the cost of living and raising a family. “We’re not in it for the money. We’re in it because we love what we do. Some have left nursing – a job they love to do – to take another job.”
Pasteris concluded, “How valuable are your children? That’s what it comes down to.” She added that the 8 percent increase the nurses are requesting still makes them the lowest paid nursing staff in the area.