Published November 27. 2013 11:00AM Updated November 28. 2013 7:47PM
Union says it will walk workers to jobs Saturday night; hospital says it will lock them out
New London — Negotiations will resume Tuesday between Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and the union that represents about 800 striking nurses and technicians, the first hopeful sign since contract talks broke down Tuesday afternoon.
The new session was arranged by a federal mediator on Wednesday, the first day of the first strike in the hospital's 101-year history.
"L+M immediately agreed to resume negotiations, and it is our hope that the unions will also return to the table — this time prepared to negotiate in good faith," hospital spokesman Mike O'Farrell said.
AFT Connecticut spokesman Matt O'Connor said the union also is pleased about the new session.
Strikers gathered in the rain outside the main hospital and at Pequot Medical Center in Groton at 6 a.m. Wednesday, marching and waving blue-and-white picket signs despite intermittent downpours. Stephanie Johnson, president of the union that represents licensed practical nurses and technicians, said pickets would continue into the night, on Thanksgiving Day and through the weekend.
"We're here 24-7," she said.
The union plans to end the strike at 11 p.m. Saturday and escort workers back to their jobs. The hospital, however, said striking workers will be on "lockout" until a new contract is achieved, because on-again, off-again strikes would be too disruptive. The union considers the lockout illegal and is seeking a court injunction to stop it.
Replacement nurses and technicians were brought to the hospital, "smoothly and without incident," O'Farrell said, in vans at 6 a.m. About 150 to 250 replacements are manning patient units, some of which have been consolidated. Two units were closed in advance of the strike, and elective surgeries scheduled through Friday have been postponed. No balloon angioplasty procedures are being done during the strike. Most other areas of the hospital, including outpatient imaging and labs, remain open.
Cheryl "Tidge" Copp, receptionist at the front desk, said visitor and patient traffic to the hospital was "not much off" from normal on Wednesday. A few visitors have asked about the strike, she said.
"We just say they're talking and trying to work things out," said Copp, a member of the health care workers union, which is not part of the strike.
Four inspectors from the state Department of Public Health are monitoring patient care and other areas at the main hospital, and one is stationed at Pequot Health Center in Groton.
"They will conduct regular, announced inspections, reviewing staffing and patient care, medical records," said William Gerrish, spokesman for the health department.
The emergency departments at L+M, The Westerly Hospital, which is part of the L+M parent company, and at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich all saw heavy patient volumes Wednesday, according to spokesmen for the hospitals. Shawn Mawhiney at Backus said nine patients have been transferred from L+M since Monday.
O'Farrell said that while most of the transfers were unrelated to the strike, L+M is grateful to Backus and local emergency medical services crews for their help this week. Backus has been accepting medical-surgical and critical care patients diverted from L+M.
Dr. David Reisfeld, general surgeon and incoming president of the medical staff, conducted patient rounds at the hospital Wednesday morning and said the transition to replacement workers seemed to go smoothly.
"It seemed the hospital did solid preparation to make sure everything was safe for the patients," he said. "But the whole situation is unfortunate."
The medical staff has not voiced support for either side's position.
"The sentiment of the medical staff is that the nurses and technical staff are like extended families, and we want them back," he said. "We're hopeful they'll be back soon."
O'Farrell said additional security crews are at the hospital, and all patients, visitors and staff who are not part of the strike must check in at the main entrance. All other entrances are closed. Staff swipe their badges at a table manned by security staff. Badges for striking workers have been deactivated.
The strike has attracted attention from around the state. After Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, weighed in on Tuesday, two prominent state legislators joined in Wednesday. Speaker of the House Rep. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, and Senate President Donald Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, both voiced support for striking workers.
Linda Beth, a registered nurse at L+M for 26 years, said she is saddened that no agreement has been reached, but proud to be walking the picket line with her co-workers.
"We've been through lots of negotiations over the years, and they've always been cooperative," she said as she walked with other strikers outside the main hospital. "I was at the negotiations yesterday (Tuesday) and it was awful. I was horrified. We love our jobs and we love this hospital and the patients."
Outside Pequot Medical Center, radiology technologist Lesley McKiernan said she was striking to protect her job and that of her colleagues.
"This isn't about money," said McKiernan, who has worked at L+M for 26 years. "It's all about subcontracting. I never in my life ever thought I would be doing this. I never thought my job would be in jeopardy."
The union is seeking language in the contract that would require the hospital to offer nurses and technicians whose jobs are transferred out of the main hospital to what L+M considers nonunion affiliates to let them continue to work in equivalent unionized jobs at the affiliates. They are concerned about the possible transfer of outpatient services at the diabetes clinic and infectious disease clinic, among others. An unfair labor practice charge about previous transfers is pending.
"We know they can't give us 100 percent job security. No one can," said Dale Renski, a licensed practical nurse who picketed outside Pequot Wednesday. "But they're taking jobs out of the hospital and not even giving us the opportunity to apply for those jobs. Let us follow the jobs when they leave the hospital."
O'Farrell said L+M has "no plans at the moment to outsource anybody." The hospital's last offer to the union, he said, would guarantee that the jobs of 90 percent of the 540 registered nurses and 50 percent of the 250 licensed practical nurses and technicians would not be moved out of the hospital.
"But that doesn't mean that the rest will lose their jobs," he said.
The hospital is seeking the flexibility in the new three-year contract to allow it to make whatever changes are necessary to adapt to the rapidly changing health care environment, O'Farrell said.
"We can't predict next year," he said.