L+M union objects to outsourcing talk

New London - While one union is raising objections to the possibility that Lawrence + Memorial Hospital will outsource two departments, another group of workers has begun a new union-organizing effort.

At the same time, a third group of workers, the hospital's 19 security guards, voted this week to join the International Union, Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America.

Both the security guards and the other group seeking to unionize - 30 home-health aides who work for an L+M affiliate, the VNA of Southeastern Connecticut - said they are seeking job security and more of a say in their workplace. The home-health aides are seeking to join AFT Connecticut, the same union that represents nurses, technical workers and health care support staff at the hospital.

Harry Rodriguez, president of the health care workers' union, said there is an overall "disconnect" between senior management and rank-and-file workers at the hospital that is behind the recent events.

"People aren't happy," he said. Workers are resentful about layoffs in November, another round of layoffs 2½ weeks ago, and recent program cuts, he said, while the hospital presents itself as financially healthy, recently completing the purchase of The Westerly Hospital and opening a new cancer center.

Rodriguez said that last week, he was called to the Human Resources Department and told that the hospital was considering outsourcing its cafeteria and environmental services departments. Those departments employ 186 of the 852 people in his union, he said. Representatives of private vendors were seen touring the departments and taking notes, he said.

Rodriguez said he was told outsourcing could be avoided if his union agreed to reopen its contract and offer concessions, "and put everything on the table."

Matt O'Connor, spokesman for AFT, said the health care workers met and decided against reopening the contract.

"The majority of the dining, cafeteria and housekeeping staff are the lowest paid in the hospital," he said. He provided a copy of L+M's most recent 990 tax form, showing that dining services generated $1.2 million in revenues in 2010.

"We're proceeding cautiously as though it is something that could be put back on the table," O'Connor said.

Mike O'Farrell, spokesman for L+M, said the hospital is not currently pursuing any outsourcing arrangements, but left open the possibility that it may seek private vendors to run some hospital services in the future.

"We aren't in negotiations to outsource anything at this time," he said. "However, while nothing is imminent, nothing is off the table either. As we continue to adapt to a changing health care environment, everything is being considered. Our goal is always to provide the best care at the lowest cost."

O'Farrell declined to comment on the organizing effort by the home-health aides.

Nina Rodriguez, home-health aide for 11 years, said the union-organizing effort grew out of concerns about changes at the VNA.

"We know our managers are being pressured by L+M Corp. to treat our service more like a business," she said in a news release. "But that's not what this job is about. It's about heart. It's about compassion."

The union said her comments referred to the hospital corporation's efforts to increase the profitability of the VNA. Changes proposed include reducing allowed travel time between patient homes and increased work loads, the union said.

j.benson@theday.com

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