L+M unions approve new three-year contract

New London — After swift and conciliatory deliberations that sharply contrasted with bitter contract negotiations 2½ years ago, the three unions representing about 1,700 Lawrence + Memorial Healthcare workers overwhelmingly ratified new three-year contracts on Wednesday.    

Greg Kotecki, field representative for AFT Connecticut, the union that represents all three locals at L+M, said this was the first time contracts for all three bargaining units have been negotiated simultaneously.

Hospital administrators and union officials reached the agreement after just one marathon session on Friday and emerged with a contract that was approved by the rank-and-file by a 26-to-one ratio, Kotecki said.

“We wanted to avoid what took place last time,” he said, referring to the strike and three-week lockout that took place after contract talks stalled in late 2013. “The members are relieved.”

Both the union and the hospital decided to reach an agreement for the health care workers, whose contract was set to expire in May, in tandem with contracts for the registered nurses and the technicians union, whose contracts were to expire in June.

“The results are obvious in the way the members embraced it 26-to-1,” said Harry Rodriguez, president of the health care workers union.

Lisa D’Abrosca, president of the registered nurses’ union, said this was the highest margin for a contract approval she has ever seen.

Stephanie Johnson, president of the technicians’ union, said many of the union members wrote “thank you” on their ballots.

“We did it the easy way this time,” she said.

Union officials said members were surveyed before the contract talks began about their most important concerns, and the majority listed job security, cost containment for health insurance and a desire for wage increases.

“This contract hit all the high points,” Kotecki said.

The contract provides workers with a lump sum bonus of 1 percent of their gross annual wages on April 16, followed by 1 percent increases in their hourly wages five times until the contract expiration in 2019.

It also sets the minimum wage for hourly employees at $12.10, which is $2 higher than the current minimum wage in New London.

The contract also freezes workers’ contributions for their health care coverage at current rates, Kotecki said, and includes some job protection language.

Work cannot be subcontracted to nonunion workers unless the hospital demonstrates it will result in “substantial savings,” he said, and anyone who loses their job if a service is eliminated would be able to keep their hourly wage at another position they “bump” into, he said.

That provision is intended to address the proposed affiliation of L+M with the Yale-New Haven Health System.

“This will provide a soft landing for our employees if any clinical services end,” he said.

In another provision addressing the possibility of a future merger, the contract also specifies that the rates patients are charged for services would remain “separate and distinct” from Yale rates.

“The union was concerned that L+M would adopt Yale rates,” Kotecki said. “We believe Yale rates are more than L+M’s. We’d like to keep that distance. This is cost containment for the community.”

Yale and L+M applied to state regulators in the fall for approval for L+M to join Yale's larger network.

The review is currently on hold, however, after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last month suspended all pending mergers, affiliations and acquisitions pending the outcome of the work of a task force charged with reforming the process.

In an effort to curtail health care costs, the contract also requires that workers have “age applicable” screening tests and that they participate in a wellness plan, Kotecki said.

L+M President Bruce Cummings called the contract “a terrific thing for our 1,700 employees, our patients and the community.”

“There aren’t a lot of good days in health care in Connecticut these days,” he said, referring to the state tax on hospitals and state budget cuts impacting hospitals. “But this was a really, really good day.”

j.benson@theday.com

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