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Union, hospital at odds

June 24, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

With a June 30 strike deadline looming, Chambersburg Hospital and the union representing more than 1,200 of its 1,500 employees are far apart on mandatory overtime and medical benefits and have barely touched on wages and pensions, representatives for both sides said Wednesday.

Members of Service Employees International Union Local 1199P and hospital officials held back-to-back press conferences outlining their positions as each prepared for an evening negotiating session. Another session is scheduled for Monday.

"At Chambersburg Hospital, we're being forced to work mandatory overtime routinely," nurse Alice Skupnick said at the union press conference. She said the union is asking for safe staffing levels "to prevent already exhausted nurses from working more than they already have to."

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Mandatory overtime poses a patient safety issue and could be eased with more personnel, Skupnick said.

Mandatory overtime is "being worked on a very limited basis," said William J. Flannery, the hospital's chief consultant in the talks. According to hospital figures, 251 employees worked 2,679 hours of mandatory overtime during the past 18 months, an average of 11 hours.

Carol Cryer, vice president of Patient Services, said the hospital recently hired 38 registered nurses for new positions and Norman P. Epstein, the hospital president, said 200 new positions have been added during the course of the current four-year contract.

The union, which includes all hospital employees except physicians, supervisors and administrators, criticized a hospital proposal to change medical benefits to include higher co-payments for treatment and medications and increased deductibles. Pharmacist Paul Helfrich said the hospital proposes raising the co-payment for a doctor's visit from $5 to $25 and for medicines from $10 to $50 for a three-month supply.

Epstein said the proposal will bring the hospital more in line with what other area employers offer.

"Capital Blue Cross would not even consider bidding on the plan" the employees now have, he said.

Epstein said the hospital spends $7.1 million to cover unionized workers, a figure that will jump by $4.8 million if no changes are made in medical benefits.

Jan Green, a 56-year-old nurse with 31 years at the hospital, said her pension would have been $817 a month with no medical coverage if she retired last year. She said employees lose 5 percent of pension benefits for each year they retire before age 65.

"What we'd like is full retirement at 55," similar to teachers and police officers, Green said.

Flannery said the union wants the "rule of 65," meaning any combination of an employee's age and years of service. He said that would allow someone 45 years of age with 20 years of service to retire, something that is "out of the question."

"We have not been able to get past overtime and staffing issues with the union ... We're at the end of the line," Flannery said. There also is no agreement on the length of a contract, with the union asking for a three-year deal and the hospital negotiating for a four-year pact, he said.

"There's been virtually no discussion on wages," Flannery said.

"It's not wages," said Abilene Carter, who was among the union members who voted last week to authorize a strike notice. Carter, who works part time in the behavioral health unit, said she will walk out if there is no agreement by midnight Wednesday.

A single parent, Carter said much of her income "goes to health insurance and child care" and mandatory overtime makes it hard to arrange for care on short notice.

In the event of a strike, Epstein said the hospital has a plan to keep running "almost as it operates today," but offered few details.

"There will be a few services we'll cut back on" and the hospital may "ease back on the number of patients coming into the building" as the deadline approaches, he said.

Chambersburg Hospital is part of Summit Health, which includes Waynesboro (Pa.) Hospital. Epstein said Waynesboro Hospital has no union.

While numerous issues need to be resolved, Flannery said "it is not unusual for us to be at this point in this stage of the negotiations.

Green said she wants to avoid a strike like the three-week walkout that occurred at the hospital in 1979.

"No one won in '79," she said.

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