News & Events

Hospital butts head with union

Hospital butts head with union

By Jennifer Huberdeau, New England Newspapers

 Updated: 05/18/2010 09:12:36 AM EDTTuesday May 18, 2010

NORTH ADAMS — North Adams Regional Hospital is having problems with another union.

It has now filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, saying the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents about 108 registered nurses at the facility, unlawfully retaliated against the hospital by taking two grievances to arbitration just two days after a collective bargaining session.

According to a release from hospital officials, the union filed the grievances after it unsuccessfully demanded that the hospital reduce the number of proposed changes to the existing three-year contract, which expired on March 31.

Hospital officials also maintain that the union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the labor board as part of the retaliation. The union’s charge alleges that hospital officials failed to produce certain documents in response to an information request.

"Yet the hospital had already produced the relevant documents — 329 pages — and the union had not indicated that it was still seeking documents. The union filed this charge just two days after a collective bargaining session," the release states.

Mary McConnell, a registered nurse and bargaining unit co-chairwoman at NARH, said Monday she wasn’t shocked by the hospital’s filing.

"Was it unexpected? Yes. Shocking? No. The hospital filed an unfair labor practice charge against us in March — which was dismissed by thelabor board," she said.

The two sides have been at the bargaining table since January. In April, a federal mediator was called in to facilitate the collective bargaining meetings.

"We’re not looking for anything excessive," McConnell said. "We’ve asked for a level contract — no across the board raises, no additional benefits or vacation time. What we asked for were language changes in the contract — requests that new equipment be ergonomic — that there’s safety in the work environment. We want to make sure that new equipment is ergonomic. We’ve had two instances where a computer station on wheels has fallen on a nurse."

Although the nurses aren’t looking for raises or additional benefits, she said the major contention between the two sides is over staffing procedures and a list of 114 "take-away" language changes to the contract.

"It’s very similar to what they proposed to the SEIU [1199 Service Employees International Union] a few months ago," McConnell said.

Hospital officials contend their proposal, which would allow them to send home or call-in nurses based on patient levels, would reduce overtime expenses and could save as much as $1 million a year. The hospital is required to set its nursing staff schedules six weeks in advance, despite not knowing how many patients will be admitted in advance.

"The hospital needs reasonable flexibility. It needs the ability to schedule staff for the projected average census, and the ability to add per diem staff or to change shifts for regular staff as patients require," said Arthur Scott, vice president of human resources for Northern Berkshire Healthcare, the hospital’s parent company. "To address the nurses’ need for predictability, the hospital is open to exploring any number of models that achieve these goals."

He added, "Last fall, NARH reached an agreement with 1199SEIU that balanced the need for predictability with flexibility while lowering labor costs. There is no reason the hospital cannot achieve a similar balance with the MNA. However, this will require serious engagement by both parties in the negotiating process, rather than filing frivolous grievances to delay or derail the process."

McConnell said the nurses do not see having a guaranteed number of working hours as a legacy benefit, but as a basic benefit of having a job.

"They want to cancel shifts and send people home if the staffing levels are too high for the patient volume," she said. "One of the basic benefits of taking a job is knowing you will have the guarantee of a certain amount of hours — you create a life around those hours, take on a mortgage, set a family budget. We find that creating mandatory overtime hours and cutting staffing levels will create a safety hazard."

She added, "Our arguments are very similar to those of the SEIU — if the hospital can afford an expensive Midwest lawyer and a law firm in Boston to fight their arbitrations, then they can afford our level contract. I don’t expect the senior administration to take a pay cut in their pay check when the patient census is low, so they shouldn’t expect me to take one."

Hospital officials also dispute the number of proposals put forth during the bargaining process, stating that they have only submitted 39 proposals which the union has "dissected" into 114 requests.

"Of the 39 original proposals, many are definitely not takeaways — some simply clean up obsolete or conflicting language, some reflect the necessary change in the effective dates of the contract, and some would benefit the nurses," Paul Hopkins, hospital spokesman, said Monday. "The majority of our substantive proposals are around staffing flexibility and related issues. Many of the fractured proposals make no sense on their own merits, even though the union insists on counting each one as a separate proposal. For example, one proposal required re-numbering a list — changing a number from 3.2 to 3.3 in order to insert a new number 3.2."

McConnell disagreed that many of the changes were minor language adjustments.

"Some of the ‘language’ changes extrapolate out into three or four sections of the contract," she said. "Most of the changes would lead to ‘takeaways’ in other sections of the contract. It’s been a long process to examine all of the changes. They have a very smart, high-priced lawyer on their side."

She said the union has prepared and sent a full counter proposal to the hospital administration through the federal mediator. The two sides are scheduled to come together again on May 27.

NARH, Nurses File Dueling Charges Over Contract Talks

Staff Reports

04:04PM / Monday, May 17, 2010NORTH ADAMS, Mass. – Northern Berkshire Healthcare is once more involved in a labor dispute, this time with the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

North Adams Regional Hospital says it’s filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents the hospital’s registered nurses. In the charge, filed with the National Labor Relations Board, hospital officials claim the union has "unlawfully retaliated" against it because negotiators wouldn’t pull certain bargaining proposals off the table.

The hospital finished up an acrimonious negotiation with 1199SEIU last December that sent its licensed practical nurses, technicians, therapists, kitchen workers and housekeepers into strike mood. The health-care system also lost a labor battle with 1199SEIU over organizing at Sweet Brook Care Centers in Williamstown.

Local MNA leaders said last fall they were keeping a sharp eye on the talks between NARH and SEIU, as their local prepared to enter negotiations in January for a new three-year contract. The union and health-care system butted heads last year over pension issues.

The hospital, meanwhile, said the union is retaliating over current talks "by taking two baseless grievances to arbitration just days after a collective bargaining session." In a statement, hospital officials say the union demanded the number of changes proposed for the existing contract be withdrawn and that grievances filed with the NLRB are part of the same retaliatory effort.

The union, according to hospital officials, is alleging NARH failed to produce requested documents; the hospital said it’s released 329 pages and the law requires the union to bargain in good faith.

NBH officials have been struggling with cost-containment and pension losses and has been fighting the unions over excess staffing for a depleted patient count. Because the patient count has fluctuated dramatically at times, the hospital is looking for more flexibility in staffing. Nurses and other workers, however, say that flexibility will mean loss of guaranteed hours and benefits, turning them into "on call" employees.