Published November 22. 2013 10:00AM Updated November 22. 2013 10:24PM
New London — Replacement nurses and technicians will arrive over the weekend for orientation sessions in preparation for a possible strike at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital that could begin on Wednesday.
In addition, hospital leaders said at a news conference Friday that in the event of a strike, there will be a "lockout" starting Dec. 1 to prevent the approximately 800 unionized nurses and technicians from returning to work until there is a new contract. AFT Connecticut, which represents registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and technicians, informed the hospital it could call for its members to go on strike for four days starting Wednesday.
Bruce Cummings, president and chief executive officer of L+M Healthcare Corp., the hospital's parent company, said a lockout would be necessary because an on-again, off-again strike would be too disruptive. He said there would be no disruption of patient services while replacement workers are at the hospital.
Union leaders accused the hospital of using "scare tactics" and said L+M has been "preparing for a strike as though it were inevitable" by making plans starting in July for replacement workers to use parking lots in the city.
"We remain hopeful that we can reach a mutual agreement and avoid a strike," Stephanie Johnson, president of the union representing licensed practical nurses and technicians, said in a statement. "However, we are standing strong and won't be bullied into giving up on our patients and our community."
Negotiations between L+M and the unions failed to reach an agreement Thursday, five days after the contract expired. Another negotiation session is scheduled for Tuesday.
Donna Epps, vice president of human resources at the hospital, said she was hopeful but not overly optimistic that a strike could be averted. The two sides remain far apart on some key issues, she said.
There has not been a strike at any hospital in Connecticut in 33 years.
Cummings said the main contract dispute is over job security issues, not wages. The union is asking for "overarching assurances" about job protections that no employer can give, he said.
"We've made our most flexible and comprehensive proposal, and the union leadership rejected it out of hand," he said. Workers "are not being well-served by union representatives," who he said have used "stubborn and destructive antics" during the negotiations and are leading membership toward an "ill-advised and expensive" strike, he said.
In response, Lisa D'Abrosca, president of the registered nurses union, said 90 percent of members polled said their negotiating committees are acting in their best interests.
Cummings said the hospital's offer is "as close to absolute job security as possible in a field that is rapidly changing," with new technology and recent decisions by insurance companies and government agencies on reimbursements significantly impacting finances.
In its latest offer, the hospital said it would not transfer jobs from acute care units including the Emergency Department, inpatient and critical care areas. The union has unfair labor practice charges pending against the hospital over previous transfers of unionized jobs to what the hospital considers nonunionized affiliates in L+M's physician practices, and is seeking to stop any future transfers to affiliates. Recent transfers include outpatient mental health and obstetrics and gynecology clinic services.
Union leaders said they offered to drop their proposal for a job security clause in the contract in exchange for the hospital agreeing to abide by a ruling due next month from the National Labor Relations Board on the unfair labor practice charges. L+M would have to agree not to appeal the decision.
Epps said the hospital declined the offer because it did not want a third party dictating hospital policy.
On Wednesday, the union filed a new unfair labor practice charge alleging that the hospital has interfered with employees' rights by threatening not to reinstate workers who go on strike.
The union said the hospital's last offer fell far short of the kinds of assurances it is seeking. Johnson said the hospital has acknowledged that it "intends to move infectious disease services, the diabetes center and occupational health services off-site next year alone.
"In fact, it appears as if they are intent on displacing services provided at the hospital by one-fourth of the skilled registered nurse workforce and nearly two-thirds of the professional licenses practical nurse and health technician workforce," Johnson said. "We could not agree to any proposal that puts so much that the community relies on at risk."