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Nurses, ARH meet again

Even though no new talks have been scheduled, the fact that striking nurses and Appalachian Regional Healthcare officials met again Monday is being seen as a good sign by aides to the governors of Kentucky and West Virginia.

The Register-Herald of Beckley, W.Va., reported Tuesday (yesterday) that aides for new Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin sat down again Monday in West Virginia’s Capitol with the nurses and ARH officials.

Even though the contract strike that began two months ago wasn’t settled, an aide to Manchin said it was encouraging to see the two sides meet again.

“There was a meeting with nurses and management, but it concluded nothing,” communications director Lara Ramsburg told the newspaper. “There’s not really anything official to report except the governor was pleased that both sides were willing to come back together and continue their discussions.”

Hundreds of nurses walked off the job Oct. 1 in Kentucky and West Virginia in the expiration of their old pact.

“They met for quite some time,” Ramsburg said. “At this point, they’re just continuing the dialogue. We think that’s important.”

Still pending is a proposal by the two governors that nurses return to work under the old contract for a 90-day cooling off period while negotiations are being held.

“I don’t know when the next meeting is scheduled, but we’re certainly hopeful that they continue the discussions,” Ramsburg said.

“We hope that at least (Monday’s session) is a positive sign.”

Chief union negotiator Pat Tanner said earlier that local union presidents have already voted unanimously to accept the proposal to return to work for 90 days.

“We stand ready to work in a spirit of cooperation and civility with ARH and the Governors to ensure an orderly transition by which nurses can quickly return to their jobs and begin providing patient care,” Tanner said in a release.

Under Beshear and Manchin’s proposal, the nurses would return to work for 90 days while both sides negotiate. The nurses would work under the terms of the old contract during the negotiating period. The governors also want to limit the number of negotiators to five people per side.

“That was the big one,” Ramsburg told the Beckley paper. “Trying to keep the number to a reasonable amount so that substantive discussions could occur.”

This would exclude consultants from the strikebound hospital chain and outside unions in support of the nurses from sitting in on the talks, she told the newspaper.

ARH officials said in a releast Monday that the governors’ plan to bring the nurses back to work under their 2004 contract is not feasible for the nurses or ARH.

Beshear, meanwhile, says it’s time for the strike to end.

“I’m very concerned about the impact this impasse may have on the health care of our people in eastern Kentucky,” Beshear said. “It is time for both sides in this dispute to come together for the good of the patients they serve.”

Nurses working for ARH in Kentucky and West Virginia walked out Oct. 1. The nurses overwhelmingly rejected a contract offer on December 4.

Even if the nurses don’t go back to work, some could receive a healthy check from the hospital anyway after a federal appeals court last week upheld a lower court’s decision concerning a contract dispute over pay and flexible work hours.

The nurses could receive up to $3.6 million in back pay if ARH doesn’t appeal the ruling by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, said Kim Geveden, a spokesperson for the Kentucky and West Virginia Nurses Association.

Hundreds of nurses claim they were not paid properly under a 2001 contract. The contract allowed the nurses to work 36 hours in three 12-hour shifts and receive pay for 40 hours rather than 12 hours of overtime. The hospital threw out the program in 2005. Many nurses continued to work the 36-hour week but were not paid according to the plan.

The union took the dispute to an arbitrator, who sided with the union. A federal judge upheld the decision in October 2006.

“A lot of these nurses have a nice check coming to them at some point,” Geveden told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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