nurses who have been striking against Applachian Regional Healthcare hospitals in Whitesburg and eight other locations are expected to begin returning to work the day after Christmas.
NOW HISTORY — These tents which had stood beside the Whitesburg
strike against ARH in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia ended Saturday night
when nurses voted to ratify a new contract. The contract, which expires in 2011,
was approved by nurses in Whitesburg by a margin of 35-4.
The approval ended a nearly three-month strike that forced some layoffs and brought financial hardship to ARH, which operates nine hospitals in the two states.
More than 600 of the hospital system’s 750 registered nurses walked off the job on Oct. 1 and about 500 remained on strike before a tentative agreement was reached on Dec. 20.
“I think it’s been 83 days. It’s been a long time, much longer than we ever anticipated,” said Pat Tanner, the lead negotiator for the nurses. “But it’s time to go back, I hope we can work together to rebuild the organization.”
The company, based in Lexington, has agreed to return
350 of the striking nurses to work by Jan. 31, and the rest were to return by the end of March. The agreement said the hospital system would make its “best effort” to return all of the striking nurses to their pre-strike unit and shifts, and guaranteed that at least 80 percent would go back to their prestrike units.
“We left no nurse behind,” Tanner told the Register-Herald of Beckley, W.Va.
“We are pleased that our nurses have accepted this contract that includes an excellent compensation and benefit package,” ARH President and CEO Jerry W. Haynes said in a statement after the vote. “This is not only a vote in favor of a very good contract, it is a vote for quality patient care and improving the health and well being of all the communities we serve. We know that our nurses and our communities are as glad as management that this strike is over.”
Negotiators for the nurses had criticized back-to-work conditions proposed by the hospital system that included recognizing replacement workers as permanent employees. The hospital system has hired about 150 replacements.
Tanner said the new contract includes higher insurance premiums, but striking workers were prepared to absorb higher health care costs.
“That’s happening all over the country,” Tanner said.
The strike caused a rift among the nurses, with dozens staying behind from the first day and more than 100 others crossing the line as weeks went by without a paycheck.
The nurses on strike maintain that the dispute was never about salaries. They say staffing levels were spread too thin to ensure adequate patient care and mandatory overtime had become the norm.
Tanner said that if the replacement nurses were to stay with ARH hospitals, they would be required to join the union.
ARH has denied the claims, saying federal and state regulators have never found that ARH’s staffing levels adversely affect patient outcomes. Payroll documents offered by ARH show that nurses on average worked 2.5 hours overtime a week.
The strike also took a financial toll on at least two hospitals, forcing dozens of layoffs and one unit to close. ARH officials said some patients were refusing to cross the picket line, causing a drop in revenue.
The ARH hospital in South Williamson, which sits on the Kentucky-West Virginia line, had laid off 43 support staff, such as licensed practical nurses and clerical workers. About 100 miles east of South Williamson, 17 workers have been laid off and the general medical unit was closed at the ARH hospital in Beckley, W.Va.
“This vote is the best thing that could happen to ARH, the nurses and the community,” Tanner said. “We hope that this will help the hospitals’ viability, open closed units and contribute to quality care.”
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear joined West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin in expressing gratitude that the nurses will return to work. On December 6, Beshear and Manchin offered a proposal to help both sides reach an agreement.
“I am pleased that an agreement was made and patient care in eastern Kentucky can again begin to take precedence over contract disputes,” said Beshear. “We were very concerned about the impact this dispute would have on the health of eastern Kentuckians. (The) vote illustrates that the majority of nurses supported coming back to work. This positive outcome is in the best interest of all concerned.”
“I am so pleased that they were able to come back to the table and reach an agreement that gets our nurses back to work, and enables ARH to continue providing quality health care for southern West Virginia,” said Manchin. “This is truly good news, particularly at this time of year. I speak for so many people in West Virginia when I say we are so glad this has ended with a positive outcome. It just shows what can happen when people continue to try and work together on their differences.”
Compiled from Mountain Eagle and Associated Press reports.