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New London — As the end of the first week since Lawrence + Memorial Hospital's lockout" of its nurses and technicians approached, both sides looked forward to the next negotiating session Tuesday and workers grew increasingly aware of the costs of being on the picket line instead of at patients' bedside.
Spokesmen for the hospital and AFT Connecticut, the union representing about 800 nurses and technicians, confirmed that contract talks will resume at 1 p.m. Tuesday, a week after the last session. The two sides are still debating some of the conditions of the session, with the union pushing for a venue that would be open to members, and the hospital preferring to restrict the meeting to the two negotiating teams.
As the workers' first full week away from their jobs came to a close Friday, about 300 nurses and technicians filed complaints with the state Department of Labor over the hospital's cancellation of their health insurance coverage, union spokesman Matt O'Connor said. AFT officials assisted the workers in filing the complaints, he said.
Insurance coverage ended Nov. 30, the first day of the lockout, said L+M spokesman Mike O'Farrell. As of Dec. 1, those employees became eligible for COBRA coverage, which would continue their insurance coverage if they pay the entire premium costs.
O'Farrell said the hospital sent the workers information about COBRA. Once a new contract is reached, he said, insurance coverage would be reinstated with a "very quick open enrollment plan," he said.
He said the hospital is not aware of any issues involving the cancellation of insurance.
The union, however, said the hospital is required by state law to give 20 days' notice before coverage is canceled. The worker complaints allege that the hospital acted illegally by not giving adequate notification, O'Connor said. Workers were told verbally by the administration a few days before the lockout about the cancellation, he said, but they did not get official notification until they received letters earlier this week from the hospital's insurance plan provider, he said.
"It's a hardship for them to have to pick up the full cost out of pocket, and to have it happen so suddenly," O'Connor said.
As an example, he provided documents from one of the technicians showing it would cost her $1,440.90 per month to continue medical and dental coverage for herself and one family member through COBRA. She received the notice from Sentinel Benefits of Reading, Mass., in the mail Wednesday. The enclosed letter was dated Dec. 2. Copy of the same notification to another employee, obtained by The Day, shows it was also received Wednesday, but the enclosed letter was dated Nov. 27.
Growing weary of the impasse
On Thursday, the hospital's board of directors gathered for a special meeting, the first since the four-day strike that began Nov. 27, followed by the lockout that began at 11 p.m. Nov. 30. The hospital, staffed by replacement workers, said the unionized nurses and technicians would not be able to return until a new contract is in place, citing a threat of intermittent strikes that the union denies.
Board Chairman Ulysses Hammond declined to disclose any decisions or strategies discussed at the meeting, other than that the administration briefed the board on the strike and lockout. He said the board is fully supportive of the administration's position and its last contract offer to the nurses and technicians, but emphasized that it wants a resolution as soon as possible.
"We want our staff back," he said. "We are doing all we can to expedite that. We would like for them to vote on our most recent proposal."
He said he gave the same message to a group of nurses who delivered a flier to him at a New London Rotary Club meeting this week. Headlined "missing," with Hammond's picture underneath, the flier lists the union's complaints against the hospital and asks Hammond to "come back" to community service projects he has been involved in in the past that champion youth, families and the underserved.
"I told them we need them, and we're working very hard at getting them back, and that we need them to actually vote on the proposal we offered," he said.
Both sides said they are growing increasingly weary of the impasse and are hoping to reach an agreement. The main unresolved issue is over whether unionized nurses and technicians would be able to "follow the work" for outpatient services transferred out of the main hospital to L+M affiliates.
"The best remedy is to end the lockout and get the nurses and technicians back on the job," O'Connor said.
The hospital made what it termed its "last, best and final offer" Tuesday evening and is urging union leadership to allow members to vote on it. It states that no acute care services would be transferred, and lists six special programs and benefits that would be available to any staff laid off due to the transfer of nonacute services.
O'Farrell, the hospital spokesman, said the hospital is eager to "bring the staff back to taking care of the community" and is hoping for productive negotiations Tuesday.
"As we have for 15 previous sessions, we are ready to negotiate in good faith in an effort to reach a mutually agreeable contract that will return our employees to what they do best — taking care of the patients in our community," he said.