L+M, union urged to settle labor complaint against hospital

Hartford - The judge in the federal labor law case against Lawrence + Memorial Hospital urged the union that represents about 800 nurses and technicians to reach a settlement with the hospital, and indicated he was unlikely to issue a decision fully supportive of either side's position.

Administrative Law Judge Raymond Green, near the end of a day of testimony from L+M President and Chief Executive Officer Bruce Cummings at the National Labor Relations Board courtroom, told lawyers for the NLRB, the union and the hospital that he would favor a settlement that would provide "an appropriate remedy" for seven union employees who lost their jobs when the hospital moved the obstetrics and gynecology clinic services and outpatient mental health services out of the main hospital to affiliated private practices. Cummings said some of these employees were offered union positions in the hospital, but there were no positions for them in the physician practices, which are non-union.

Cummings testified on the third day of the hearing, following testimony by four union members, an employee of a hospital-affiliated physician practice and Donna Epps, L+M's vice president of human resources. The hearing will continue today.

The union, AFT Connecticut, challenges the hospital's assertion that the physician organization, L+M Medical Group, also known as L+M Physician Association, or LMPA, is a truly separate entity from the hospital. It contends that the workers should have been able to keep their jobs at the new locations and remain union members. The unfair labor practice charges it brought over the issue are the crux of the contract dispute that led to the strike and lockout of the 800 workers over 3½ weeks in late fall. The union is seeking "follow the work" job protection language in the new contract that the hospital says it cannot provide.

Most of the day was spent on extensive questioning of Cummings by NLRB attorney Rick Concepcion about the organization, legal status, administration, tax returns and other issues related to the formation of LMPA in 2009 and its relationship to the hospital parent corporation. During his testimony, Cummings said doctors are often asked whether their employees would have to become part of the union if their practice joined LMPA. The answer, he said, depended on the particular practice. Most practices could remain non-union, but a diagnostic service that was part of Eastern Connecticut Cardiology Group that moved into the hospital did become unionized, as did staff at Oncology and Hematology Associates when it moved into the new cancer center this fall.

"If we acquired a facility that was competing with the hospital, that was already available at the hospital, those positions would have to become part of the bargaining agreement," Cummings said.

Green said labor law does not allow for automatic expansion of a union into a workplace just because it is affiliated with a unionized employer such as L+M Hospital.

"You can't have accretions of a group of employees into a previously existing contract," he said. The employees of the private practice, he said, "have the right to choose for themselves" whether they want union representation.

"These are separate locations," Green said. "There's a very high presumption against accretion." The newly affiliated entity, he said, would have to "lose its identity" for union expansion to become automatic. The union's contention that this should be the case, he said, is contrary to labor law.

"If you got what you wanted, you'd be violating the law," Green told attorneys for the union and the NLRB.

He indicated, however, the parties should reach a compromise settlement that would "deal with the situation" for the seven employees affected by the service transfers in November 2012 and January 2013.

j.benson@theday.com

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