New London — A four-day strike by Lawrence + Memorial Hospital nurses and technicians ended without a confrontation on Saturday — but also without a return to work for the nearly 800 employees who had walked off the job.
As expected, the hospital did not allow the employees who were on strike to return, and the lockout will remain in place until an agreement on a contract is reached, hospital administration said.
The hospital, which has hired replacement staff, took the additional step of warning the hundreds of picketers and supporters rallying outside the hospital not to step foot on hospital grounds. Police officers and security staff were present to ensure that did not happen.
Instead of risking arrest and attempting to enter the hospital, union leaders tacked their "unconditional offer to return to work" to a tree outside the main entrance on Montauk Avenue, next to a giant padlock made out of cardboard and duct tape with the words "locked out."
"It's all we can do. We don't want to get arrested," Stephanie Johnson, president of the LPN technicians union, said.
"It's their choice to keep us from coming back, not ours," she said.
Union supporters also covered the "On Strike" portion of their picket signs with a sticker reading "Locked out," raising chants of "We want to work," after the official end of the strike.
Police closed off Montauk Avenue temporarily as a precaution as the numbers of supporters swelled to several hundred and spilled into the street.
Lisa D'Abrosca, president of the nurses union, said the striking employees are willing to return to work without a contract. There was a handshake agreement at Friday night's negotiation session that the union would be allowed to hand the offer to return to work to a human resources representative, D'Abrosca said.
She called the hospital's move to not allow the delivery of the letter "really childish."
Hospital spokesman Michael O'Farrell said striking employees' hospital badges were deactivated at the onset of the strike and would remain deactivated until an agreement is reached. He said on-again, off-again strikes would be too disruptive. The next scheduled negotiation session doesn't occur until 11 a.m. Tuesday.
"The lockout is occurring because the union has threatened intermittent strikes," O'Farrell said in a statement late Saturday. "Because of those threats, we have to ensure patient care continues seamlessly and without interruption."
But AFT Connecticut spokesman Matt O'Connor said that by locking out their skilled caregivers, "the corporation that operates L&M Hospital is punishing the community and needlessly putting patients' lives at risk.
"Claims of reacting to possible future strikes have no basis and are being used to justify their reckless behavior," he said in a written statement. "For the professional caregivers at L&M Hospital, the negotiations and the strike have been about preserving the community's access to quality patient care. But for the corporation's leadership, it increasingly appears that this has been about posturing themselves to win at all costs.
"The time is now, not Tuesday, for the board of directors to insist the corporation opens the hospital's doors and allow these professional caregivers to serve this community," O'Connor said.
O'Connor said the union will be seeking an injunction to end the lockout.
O'Farrell said patient care has not been compromised. "For the unions to state anything else has no basis in fact. … Clinically, we have not skipped a beat. The care being provided is exceptional, and our patients are satisfied," he said in a statement early Sunday.
Greg Kotecki, field representative for AFT Connecticut, spoke to union supporters outside the hospital Saturday night and told striking workers that they should start filing for unemployment Monday.
"They're going to be paying you to stay home," he said.
Police will continue to maintain a presence at the hospital, according to New London Deputy Police Chief Peter Reichard. The department has assigned strike detail to provide coverage around the clock. The union hired a police officer at the onset of the informational picket, but as of Friday, the hospital is paying to have police officers at the site, he said.
No agreement Friday
Talks between the L+M administration and the union representing nurses and technicians that began Friday evening ended early Saturday morning without a deal.
Elective surgeries, however, resumed at the hospital on Saturday.
During the four-hour overnight session, representatives of L+M Corp. asked for more time to review the union's last counterproposal on resolving issues related to shifting health services away from the hospital, O'Connor said.
But O'Farrell said the hospital did not request more time to review the union's position. Rather, the session focused on both sides gaining a better understanding of each other's proposals, he said.
"We understand theirs and we're ready to continue the talks," he said.
O'Connor said the union wants to meet sooner than Tuesday but the hospital would not agree. O'Farrell said both sides agreed to Tuesday, and it is the federal mediator who will decide when the talks continue. O'Farrell said the hospital will participate in talks sooner if the federal mediator calls them back together.
"We were glad to have the chance to get to the table sooner than Tuesday," O'Farrell said in an interview. "It was a civil conversation and we hope to continue that type of dialogue when we return to the table on Tuesday."
O'Connor wrote in his email, "We hope this was a step in the right direction — and not simply a dog-and-pony show in response to pressure from the community and elected officials to get back to the table."
Several politicians, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, have spoken with the striking nurses and technicians and union supporters as they rallied outside the hospital on Montauk Avenue. The strike, the first in the hospital's 101-year history, began at 6 a.m. Wednesday after negotiations broke off Tuesday.
U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney released a statement today calling on both sides to return to the negotiating table, so they can find "a way to first return the union to their jobs, and then to resolve the underlying dispute so that L+M can continue to serve the southeastern Connecticut community."
"Given the fragile state of affairs between the two sides, and the union's willingness to return to work, we continue to believe that no further escalation of the dispute should occur between now and Tuesday," the statement said. "Imposing a lockout carries grave risk, escalating the impasse instead of resolving it."
Thirty emergency room nurses, infusion nurses, technicians, radiologists and their relatives chanted "We are L + M" outside the hospital's Pequot Health Center Saturday morning. They said they were disappointed, frustrated and saddened by the lack of progress in the negotiations.
"We want the patients back in the hospital and we want to be at the bedside with them," said Maria Garceau, a nurse certified in intravenous therapy.
Cindi Kopko, a nurse certified in infusion therapy, said there is "a disconnect" between the administration and the staff, and "it's not like we're all on one team."
"They need to do the right thing and negotiate in a professional manner," added Jane Smith, a registered nurse in the emergency department.
Each of the nurses has more than 20 years of experience.
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, an opportunity to 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.
About 150 to 250 replacement workers are staffing patient units, some of which have been consolidated. O'Farrell said the replacement staff has been exceptional, making for a seamless transition. Two units were closed in advance of the strike, and elective surgeries scheduled through Friday were postponed.
Two operating rooms were available for elective procedures 12 hours each day starting Saturday and continuing through Tuesday. Three more rooms will open for elective procedures on Wednesday. The hospital typically runs six operating rooms for elective procedures.
Most other areas of the hospital, including outpatient imaging and labs, remain open.