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L+M chief Cummings will testify Thursday in hearing on labor dispute

Lawrence + Memorial Hospital President and Chief Executive Officer Bruce Cummings has been subpoenaed to testify Thursday in a federal labor law hearing about an issue central to the dispute that led to the strike and lockout of about 800 unionized nurses and technicians that ended five weeks ago.

Cummings is being called by the National Labor Relations Board to give testimony at a hearing in Hartford about whether services and jobs were transferred out of the main New London hospital to L+M-affiliated physician practices in violation of labor law. AFT Connecticut, the union that represents registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and technicians, charged that the reorganization violated labor law because jobs previously done by unionized workers in the hospital were instead being done by nonunion workers in the affiliated practices, and the union employees were not given a chance to keep their jobs in the new settings.

The dispute arose after L+M moved its obstetrics and gynecology clinic and outpatient psychiatric services in November 2012 from the main hospital to physicians' offices. The L+M affiliate, L+M Medical Group, employs about 150 staff and 70 primary care and specialist doctors in offices throughout southeastern Connecticut and Westerly.

Hearings in the NLRB case began last week and were to continue today. Today's hearing was rescheduled to Thursday due to the snowstorm.

Disagreement about the transfer of services and the hospital's ability to move more services in the future led to the impasse between L+M and the union during negotiations over a new contract this fall. The union sought job protections the hospital said it could not give, leading the union to call a four-day strike at the end of November. When the strike ended, the hospital locked out the workers and operated with replacements for three weeks. The lockout ended Dec. 19. Since then, nurses have been working under the terms of the contract that expired Nov. 16.

The first negotiating session between the hospital and the union since the end of the lockout is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 4, L+M spokesman Mike O'Farrell said Tuesday. The date was arranged by federal mediator John Carpino. O'Farrell declined to discuss the pending NLRB case, other than to say that the hospital is "actively participating, as we should" and that he expects the matter "won't be resolved quickly."

Matt O'Connor, spokesman for AFT Connecticut, said several issues remain to be resolved before the Feb. 4 session can take place. Among them are the location of the session, whether union members will be able to attend and whether the discussion will include issues about paid vacation time workers lost during the lockout, among others. The union wants workers to be able to attend the session at Baker Auditorium at the hospital, while the hospital wants it off-site and closed to observers, O'Connor said. The hospital also has not agreed to include lockout issues in the discussion, he said.

"They appear to be closing the door on discussing the impacts of the lockout," he said.

During two days of hearings last week, five union members testified to the NLRB about their jobs and the job transfers, O'Connor said. Those giving testimony were: Stephanie Johnson, president of the LPN/technicians union; Nicole Gonzalez, a technician who works in the emergency department at the main hospital and at an affiliated physician practice; Kathy Lavoie, who works in outpatient mental health services at an affiliated physician practice; Jeanne Wehling, a hospital oncology nurse; and Ellie Pelletier, a clerical worker who was laid off when outpatient mental health services were moved out of the hospital.

Also testifying was Donna Epps, vice president of human relations at L+M, O'Connor said.

During upcoming hearings, testimony is expected to be heard from Lisa D'Abrosca, president of the registered nurses union; Greg Kotecki, lead negotiator for AFT; and Harry Rodriguez, president of the bargaining unit that represents health care workers, O'Connor added. That unit was not involved in the strike and lockout.

O'Connor said the union is still hoping the hospital will agree to a settlement in the case to end what could be protracted proceedings at the NLRB. A settlement could also help resolve the contract dispute, he said.

The hospital, he said, "is wasting patient care dollars on their legal case."


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