Whitesburg KY
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Nurses say offer by ARH favors replacements

Registered nurses striking against Appalachian Regional Healthcare hospitals in Whitesburg and elsewhere in the region were expected to vote yesterday (Tuesday) to defeat the company’s latest contract offer.

Hundreds of striking nurses in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia were to vote on the new contract offer, but their negotiator called it a flawed proposal and complained they had no assurances of returning to work.

Pat Tanner, chief negotiator for nurses who walked off their jobs on Oct. 1, was pessimistic about the contract’s chances. She said the proposal still came up short on two core issues – staffing and scheduling.

“We need enough nurses to do our job,” Tanner said. “We need a schedule that’s fair and not at the sole discretion of the employer, who believes they can do what they want, when they want, to who they want.”

Nurses striking in Whitesburg were upset on Monday because the contract would give job preferences to replacement nurses brought in to do their work. Local nurses also oppose a provision in the contract which would require the union to drop all its grievances and charges of unfair labor practices that have already been filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Tanner also criticized the backto work conditions suggested by ARH in a separate proposal. Those terms, she said, would recognize replacement workers at ARH as permanent and gave no guarantees that striking nurses would be welcomed back.

Tanner condemned the back-towork terms as “an outrageous insult.”

An ARH negotiator downplayed the back-to-work provisions, saying that a majority of striking nurses would get their jobs back immediately if the walkout is ended.

Jim Smith, an attorney representing ARH in the talks, said it was union negotiators who insisted on discussing a separate strike settlement agreement. Its approval is not seen by the hospital system as a condition for ratification of a new contract by striking nurses, he said.

“It should have no impact on their willingness to ratify what we consider to be a very good, strong con tract for the employees and for the hospital,” Smith said.

Jerry W. Haynes, president and CEO of Appalachian Regional Healthcare, which includes nine hospitals in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, said the latest proposal dealt with the union’s concerns and said it “offers our nurses the most competitive wage and benefit package in the region.”

ARH submitted the newest contract proposal late last week but set a deadline of yesterday (Tuesday) for its ratification. The two sides met again Monday, though Smith said “we didn’t have much face time.”

Tanner said union negotiators sought an extension until Saturday but the hospital system refused.

She said yesterday’s vote doesn’t give union officials much time to present the offer to rankand file members, “but we’re going to give it our best shot.”

Smith said the offer was submitted last Friday, giving union members sufficient time to review it.

Tanner said the separate backto work conditions offered by ARH had hurt efforts to settle the walkout.

Under those conditions, she said, replacement workers would be deemed permanent, and striking nurses would be placed on a preferential recall list.

Smith said the hospital system has so far hired about 150 replacement workers. “We are not going to turn our back on those permanent replacement employees in deference to returning strikers,” he said.

Still, he said about 350 of the striking workers would come back to work immediately if the strike is ended. Those not rehired immediately would be placed on the recall list.

As for Smith’s comments that up to 350 striking workers would come back immediately, Tanner said, “That’s not what he told us. He told us it could be up to 18 months, and then some of us would never get back.”

Tanner estimated that about 500 of the 750 registered nurses at ARH hospitals are still striking. She said the number walking off the job was about 650 initially, but said about 150 have since taken other jobs.

Also as part of ARH’s proposed back-to-work agreement, striking nurses would have to acknowledge that the walkout was based on economic factors. Striking nurses say the dispute isn’t about salaries, but instead was caused by staffing levels that were spread too thin and mandatory overtime that had become the norm.

Another condition would be that any striking nurse deemed by ARH to have engaged in walkout related misconduct would not be eligible for the preferential hiring list. Such cases would go to an arbitrator, who would decide whether the hospital system had “good cause” to terminate such employees.

Tanner said the conditions were “a petty, vindictive attempt” by ARH to punish the nurses.

“This document exemplifies the mean-spirited and bad-faith effort that ARH has demonstrated throughout these negotiations,” Tanner said.

In their own back-to-work offer, representatives for the striking nurses proposed that anyone who walked off the job should get back their jobs and shifts and face no retaliation.

Besides the replacement workers and some nurses who have crossed the picket line, ARH is relying on nursing supervisors, licensed practical nurses and nurses’ aides to fill the gaps.

Compiled from Associated Press and Mountain Eagle reports.

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