Published December 03. 2013 4:00AM
New London - Nurses and technicians who went on strike last week began filing for unemployment benefits Monday, as both the union representing them and Lawrence + Memorial Hospital prepared for negotiations to resume this morning.
Federal mediator John Carpino is scheduled to attend the 11 a.m. session, the second since the start of the strike. It is the first in the hospital's 101-year history and the first strike at any hospital in the state since 1986, according to the Connecticut Hospital Association.
Over the weekend, as workers attempted to end their strike and return under the old contract, only to have the hospital declare a "lockout" until a new contract is reached, L+M President and Chief Executive Officer Bruce Cummings sent a letter to the 800 nurses and technicians explaining the hospital's latest contract offer.
"Our goal is to get our people back with a contract and no threat of intermittent strikes," Cummings said in an interview Monday evening. "Our replacement staff have been exceptionally skilled, and adaptable to working with a variety of settings and technologies, but there's no question we'd rather have our regular staff back. We're a community hospital and we want people from our community caring for people from our community."
He said he hopes that after today's session, the nurses and technicians will be given the chance by their union to vote on the hospital's latest offer.
About 150 to 250 replacement nurses and technicians recruited through US Allied of Jacksonville, Fla., have caring for patients since the strike, and additional replacements are being sought. The company's website advertises positions at L+M that pay $64 to $100 per hour, plus travel and housing expenses.
William Gerrish, spokesman for the state Department of Public Health, said state inspectors monitoring care at the main hospital and the Pequot Health Center in Groton have not identified any issues of concern thus far.
On the picket line outside the hospital, emergency room technician Marc Dyer and his wife, registered nurse Natalie Dyer, and fellow RN Heather Millard said they are hoping today's session yields an agreement that will enable them to get back to work. All three had made initial contacts with the state Department of Labor to receive unemployment compensation for lost work days since the lockout began.
"A lot of us feel lost not being able to care for our patients. It's surreal," Natalie Dyer said. "We just want it to be over."
The union has been encouraging workers to apply for unemployment benefits and has arranged for a team from the state Department of Labor to answer members' questions at the union hall on Wednesday from noon to 3 p.m., said Matt O'Connor, spokesman for AFT Connecticut.
Lisa D'Abrosca, president of the union representing about 540 registered nurses, said the latest offer from the union that will be on the table today would enable nurses and technicians whose jobs are transferred to affiliates outside the hospital to keep their jobs under the union contract, with renegotiated wages and benefits.
"It would be a two-tiered wage scale," she said.
Text of the latest union offer, provided by O'Connor, did not mention renegotiating wages and benefits, however. It listed eight hospital departments that L+M would pledge to keep at the main hospital. Workers in other departments transferred outside the hospital would keep their jobs, seniority, pay rate and benefits and be covered under the same union contract, according to the text.
Late Monday, Attorney General George Jepsen issued a statement urging both sides to reach an agreement today. He also encouraged L+M "to reconsider its decision to lock out workers, who have called off their strike and expressed a willingness to return to their important work caring for L+M's patients.
"L+M need not wait for negotiations to start, or to bear fruit, before permitting workers to return to their jobs," Jepsen said.
Cummings said the lockout is necessary because of statements by union leaders that they would stage on-again, off-again strikes that would be disruptive to patient care.
In a new three-year contract, he said, the hospital could pledge to preserve the jobs of all the nurses and technicians in acute care areas, which would cover about 90 percent of the registered nurses and more than 50 percent of the licensed practical nurses and technicians. The hospital wants to maintain the flexibility to move some outpatient services out of the hospital to affiliated physicians' offices in the community, but has current plans to do so with only the Joslin Diabetes Clinic, which does not employ members of either the registered nurses or the LPN-technicians bargaining units.
"There has been no wholesale transfer of clinical jobs out of the hospital, and none are planned," he said. "Acute care services are always going to remain at L+M and Westerly Hospital."
Transfers over the past year of the obstetrics-gynecology clinic and outpatient mental health services to physicians' offices were made to provide those services in more appropriate settings, he said. Cummings said the union is seeking to add all 270 staff members at affiliated physician practices to its membership, "but not all work everywhere is union work. We can't provide the broad assurances the union is looking for."
Cummings said it is too soon to estimate the economic and other impacts of the strike on the hospital, but added, "no one wins in a strike. There are only losers."
The hospital curtailed services when the strike began but has gradually been restoring them. Elective surgeries postponed last week are being rescheduled and all surgery services will be "back to near full capacity" by Wednesday. The intensive care unit reopened at 7 p.m. Monday, said hospital spokesman Michael O'Farrell.
O'Connor said the union is focused on ending the lockout and "getting the nurses back at the bedside." He emphasized that the dispute is not about wages or numbers of union members.
"This is not about growing the union," he said. "It's a fundamental disagreement about patient care delivery and job security. Our concern is making sure skills are provided by professional skilled caregivers and that they have a voice."
Although wages are not central to the contract dispute, salaries for nurses and technicians were listed in full-page ads that L+M purchased in The Day this weekend and Monday. In the ads, in which L+M said it is "setting the record straight," it states that registered nurses earn $100,473 annually and LPN/technicians earn $86,994. O'Farrell said the figures represent average wages for nurses and technicians who work full time, including those who earn higher pay for working night and weekend shifts. He said 158 of the 540 registered nurses work full time, and 110 of the 250 LPN-technicians are full time.
The figures were included in the ad to offer the community "perspective" on the issues, Cummings said.
"We're proud we're able to pay good wages and benefits," he said.
The union, however, called the ad "misleading at best." The salaries published are those at the top pay rates, reflecting those with the most years of service, O'Connor said. The majority of the 800 workers in the two bargaining units work part time at lower pay rates, he said.
While the hospital administration and the union continue to make their cases for their positions, patients and doctors in the community are also describing different experiences because of the labor dispute.
Dr. Henry Amdur, a member of the L+M board, said he was at the hospital Thursday and Friday. He said the hospital was busy and that replacement workers were competent and "knew how to practice safely."
"Patients should not be afraid to come to L+M," he said. "But it's still very upsetting. The nursing and technical staff are like family to me. The replacements are by no means a substitute for normal operations."
Urologist Dr. Richard Fraser was himself a patient at L+M on Wednesday because of a post-surgical infection. His care, he said, "took twice as long as it normally does."
"I'm sure these nurses are well trained," he said. "It's just not as smooth as having the same team there. It doesn't matter how well trained they are, they're not a team."
Fraser said some of his fellow physicians are hoping to postpone any major surgeries until after the lockout.
Dr. David Reisfeld, incoming president of the medical staff, said he did surgery on Friday and "there were no issues. Patients are doing well, and had no complaints about care."
Jeffrey Douglas of Niantic, however, said he canceled his appointment Saturday for plasmapheresis, a blood cleansing procedure he needs regularly for a chronic condition.
"The nurses there know their chronic care patients," he said. "I don't need rent-a-nurses from Florida that don't know how I respond."
He said he was trying to get an appointment to have the procedure done at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich instead.
Gail Antoniac of Old Saybrook is also looking to go to another hospital for her husband's cardiac rehabilitation. Antoniac, a retired L+M nurse and former union president, said L+M called her Friday to cancel his appointment, scheduled for Wednesday.
"I wouldn't cross the line anyway," she said. "I know the nurses there. They're excellent. That's why I wanted him to go there. Now I have to find another place for him to go."