Published August 06. 2013 6:00PM Updated August 06. 2013 6:24PM
New London — The National Labor Relations Board has found sufficient evidence to support a union complaint that Lawrence + Memorial Hospital has been violating federal labor laws by moving jobs out of the main hospital to outpatient offices in the community, and has set an Oct. 21 date for a hearing with an NLRB administrative law judge.
"This is a plot to save money at the expense of patient care," said Lisa D'Abrosca, president of the union that represents registered nurses, said in a news conference Tuesday.
Stephanie Johnson, president of the union that represents licensed practical nurses and technologists, added that L+M is also attempting to illegally "bypass union contracts."
At issue is the hospital's decision in November to move its obstetrics and gynecology clinic and the outpatient psychiatric services clinic from the main hospital to the offices of doctors in the community who are part of Lawrence + Memorial Medical Group, or LMMG, known until July as Lawrence + Memorial Physicians Association.
At the same time that the clinics were moved, 22 employees at the hospital were laid off, including some who were at the ob-gyn and psychiatric clinics there. The laid-off workers were not offered jobs at the outpatient clinics, said Greg Kotecki, field representative for AFT, the union that represents hospital workers.
The NLRB, in its finding, agreed with the union's contention that LMMG is an "alter ego" of the hospital, not a separate company, as the hospital contends. It also said that the workers in the two clinics have the same bargaining rights as other union employees and should be paid on the same wage scale. It is recommending a remedy of back pay retroactive to January equal to the difference in wages between unionized hospital workers and those in equivalent positions at the two clinics. An LMMG nurse make about $20 per hour, compared to $28 to $45 per hour for nurses at the main hospital, according to Kotecki.
In a statement, L+M said the NLRB complaint is "just the first step in what will no doubt be a lengthy process" and that the hearing will be an opportunity to fully present its case.
"While we are disappointed that the local office of the NLRB has decided to issue a complaint directed to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, this is not a decision based on merits," spokesman Mike O'Farrell said. "We are confident that our actions have been entirely proper and lawful. As this process plays out, we remain committed to our mission — providing the best patient care possible."
While the NLRB's complaint pertains only to the ob-gyn and psychiatric clinics, the final decision could have a bearing on the union's larger contention that all 150 employees of LMMG should be recognized as members of the union, Kotecki said. LMMG includes offices of about 70 primary care and specialist physicians, including those who were part of Atlantic Medical Group when L+M acquired The Westerly Hospital in May.
"We are in an active campaign to inform those workers of their rights, and the hospital is in a vicious anti-union campaign," Kotecki said.
Jonathan Kreisberg, regional director for the NLRB office in Hartford, said the complaint issued by the board is the result of a four-month investigation.
"We believe there were unfair labor practices, and L+M refused to settle the case," Kreisberg said.
Erin Yuhas, registered nurse at the LMMG office in Niantic, said she and other LMMG workers should be treated as equals with hospital employees.
"The government investigation has proven what we all already knew," she said in a statement from the union. "We do the same job as our counterparts in the hospital and we don't deserve to be treated as a second-class workforce."
D'Abrosca and Johnson said that moving services out of the hospital has lessened the quality of patient care. Patients have less access to services, and LMMG staff are being paid less and have taken on more work than equivalent positions at the in-hospital clinics.
"It's really disappointing to see this in a community hospital," said D'Abrosca.