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Union files unfair labor practice against Armstrong hospital

| Friday, March 16, 2001

ACMH strike plan
This is how hospital officials said they would operate in case of a one-day nurses' strike:

  • The emergency department will continue to operate as usual.
  • The outpatient center including the wound center, laboratory, radiology and cancer treatment units will remain open.
  • Surgery will be limited to emergencies and a reduced number of elective surgeries.
  • Patients will be transferred to other facilities if needed.
  • Medical, surgical, obstetrics, pediatrics and psychiatric departments will operate if nursing staff is
    available. If not, patients will be transferred, others discharged.
  • Primary care centers in Leechburg, Elderton and Buffalo Township will remain open.

    Strike hot line

    The hospital has established a hot line for residents to call with questions. The number is (724) 543-8726.
  • The Armstrong County Memorial Hospital nurses union has filed an unfair labor practice against the hospital alleging threats and intimidation if nurses strike Wednesday.

    There are 239 nurses who belong to the Pennsylvania State Education Association-Healthcare union which gave a 10-day notice to strike Sunday.

    The nurses voted, 146-26, to reject what the hospital called its final offer.

    The union's chief negotiator, Gilbert Gall, said that nurses have been told they would be laid off and not called back to work if they walk out. The unfair labor charge also claims that hospital officials have asked nurses to cross the picket line and resign from the union.

    'They are intentionally trying to break the will - the solidarity - of the nurses,' Gall said.

    Hospital spokesman Michael Podrasky said as of 5 p.m. Thursday the hospital had not yet received the letter filed with the National Labor Relations Board and had not heard about the unfair labor charge.

    Podrasky said that if admissions decrease there would be less work for nurses and layoffs could occur for that reason. Podrasky said patient numbers have remained steady within the past week.

    'You can't be laid off just for striking,' Gall said. 'You have the legal right.' If nurses are laid off for decreased admissions, they are able to apply for unemployment compensation.

    Podrasky said any nurse who crosses the picket line will not be subject to a layoff. Decreased admissions would not affect them, Podrasky said.

    At an informational session held Thursday at Kenny B's restaurant, nurses said they have received a work notice from the hospital asking if they will be at work Thursday.

    Gall said every nurse has been scheduled to report to work throughout the day, which he said is unusual.

    Nurses said schedules have not been made for the rest of the month, although schedules are usually made four weeks before.

    Final negotiations Gall said the union has set what it is calling a final negotiating day for Wednesday at 2 p.m. at Kenny B's to continue discussions on wages, pensions, and benefits.

    Podrasky said the hospital has sent a letter to the federal mediator asking both sides to return to the negotiating table.

    'It's one last-ditch effort,' Gall said. 'Empty chairs say a lot to the community.'

    If an agreement can't be reached, nurses will then vote again to authorize a second strike.

    They again will be required by law to file another 10-day strike notice.

    Gall said a second strike would not be limited to one day and could be lengthy.

    According to labor laws, nurses cannot picket on hospital property, which is in the West Hills Industrial Park.

    They will picket along the road off of the property.

    The issues:

  • Wages: The hospital has offered a three-year contract with annual raises of 2 percent, 3 percent and 3 percent along with longevity increases to nurses with 10 and 15 years of service.

    The union has demanded a wage increase that amounts to 17 percent over the next three years.

  • Health insurance: The hospital wants nurses to pick up 15 percent of the difference between single-person coverage and any amount above that in the first year, 20 percent in the second, and 25 percent in the third year.

    Gall said nurses would have to pay $350 to $600 annually for the coverage. He said this, in effect, lowers their raises. Nurses do not pay for family coverage now.

  • Pension: The hospital offered a 20 percent match to any contributions to the annuity plan, matching up to 2 percent of their income.

    The union's top nurses make $18.92 per hour.

    Gall said other hospitals like Butler and Indiana hospitals are paid as much as $22 per hour.

    The union's president, Terry Myers, said the nurses lost 5 percent of their salaries in 1995 because of the hospital's financial hardships.

    It took until 1998 to come back to a salary of $16.99 per hour. They do not receive cost-of-living increases, she said.

    But Podrasky contends that according to hospital research, nurses salaries are very competitive.

    Podrasky said the hospital acknowledges the pension plan needs improvement.

    'We are working on this issue,' Podrasky said. 'We will come up with something.'

    Myers said a full-time nurse with 25 years seniority, at the top of the wage scale, who is 65 years old in 2001 and retires will have a monthly pension of $349. Gall said Indiana Hospital retirees get $830 per month and Brownsville Hospital gets $840.

    Myers said the hospital would be contributing $160 per year if a nurse who made $40,000 per year put 2 percent of her income into the plan.

    Dealing with a strike Nurses could strike throughout the day Thursday.

    Gall said although 26 nurses voted not to strike, he doesn't expect many nurses to cross the picket line.

    'There's excellent care at Armstrong Memorial,' Myers said. 'We don't want to hurt the community, and we thank them for the support. But we've gone so long without a contract.'

    The hospital already has begun to implement its contingency plan in case a strike can't be averted.

    According to the plan, on Saturday admissions to medical and surgical units will be discontinued.

    Throughout the week, pediatric, obstetric and intensive care unit patients will be transferred to other hospitals, Podrasky said.

    Leslie Suhr can be reached at lsuhr@tribweb.com

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