Union employees voted unanimously Thursday at a general membership meeting to picket the hospital after contract negotiations ended Nov. 18 without reaching an agreement, Meggison said.
Major issues like staffing, wages, health insurance, pension and benefit time off are close to being settled but still remain unresolved, Meggison said.
Last week's negotiations hit a major stumbling block in regard to employee seniority, he said.
The disagreement lies in whether hospital employees should advance based solely on how long they've been there or by their level of skill and prior performance, said Harrisburg, Pa., attorney Bill Flannery, who represents the hospital.
"We really are puzzled, to say the least. We don't know why this is," Meggison said of the hospital's view that seniority alone is not a strong enough qualification for advancement.
Union representatives believe hospital officials won't settle on the issue because they want to be able to move employees around.
"Obviously they want to pick and choose who they want based on favoritism" and not on the union's job bidding procedure, Meggison said.
Since the lives of patients are at stake, hospital officials believe seniority status should also include employee qualifications, he said.
The two parties also have serious disagreements about some economic issues - primarily wages - that have yet to be worked out, Flannery said.
"The wage issue is the giant lurking in the background," he said.
A majority of the union employees' annual take-home pay is less than $13,000 per year, but they could pay more than $2,500 per year for medical insurance, according to Eileen Connelly, secretary-treasurer of District 1199P and chief negotiator. Also, a 25-year employee may only receive a pension of $200 per month at retirement, she said.
Workers are also concerned that they aren't able to provide the best care to patients on some days because there's not enough staff.
But the hospital paid out more than $3 million in overtime costs last year that could have been spent on additional staff, Connelly said.
Employee sick time is another unresolved issue. As it is now, if workers are sick, they must use time normally allocated for vacation or personal leave for the first three days of sick time.
"These workers are fighting for a contract that will improve their standard of living and provide better care for their patients," Connelly said.
Negotiations will continue at a meeting on Dec. 10.
We understand that this hospital does not have tremendous amounts of money to improve standards, but we can only wonder how much money is really there for the workers when there seems to be money for everything else," Connelly said.
Union members have been attempting to settle a first contract with the hospital since workers voted for union representation last December.
Formal negotiations began for the first contract in April and union and hospital representatives have met 15 times since then, Meggison said.