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Chambersburg Hospital workers hold vigil as contract expiration date nears

June 27, 2008|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - As the July 1 expiration of their contract with Chambersburg Hospital approaches, about 150 health care workers, family members and supporters gathered on the Franklin County Courthouse plaza Thursday evening for a candlelight vigil.

"We continue to negotiate. This is just to show support and communicate to the community what we're about," said Margaret Durand, a registered nurse and a member of the negotiating committee. The Service Employees International Union Local 1199 represents about 1,300 registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, pharmacists, maintenance, laundry, food service and other employees at the hospital, she said.

"The thing I'm most concerned about is the pension plan," said Jim Kinton, a physical therapist. The hospital proposes changing it from "a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan," he said.

Kinton told those at the vigil that one co-worker a few years from retirement will see her benefits reduced 34 percent if the plan is changed. That will mean she would have to save $1,300 a month out of her paycheck to make up the difference, he said.

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Durand said the proposed change would place employees' retirement contributions into investments "far less secure" than those offered under the current plan, which is 100 percent employer funded.

"This change is critical. It allows the hospital to deal with rising costs, while ensuring the provision of quality health care for years to come," Norman B. Epstein, the president of Summit Health, said in a statement issued by the hospital.

For many employees, "including those closest to retirement, there will be no change to their current pension plan," the statement read. Other employees will have options based "upon their age and total years of service in the pension plan," according to the statement.

The hospital stated that salaries for union employees range from $24,000 to $104,000, with a longevity bonus and other benefits. After five years on the job, the hospital pays the entire premium for full-time employees, with health insurance costing more than $12 million a year.

The union counters that the hospital ran up a surplus of $35 million during the previous two fiscal years.

"Our goal is to get a contract before July 1," said SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania Vice President Stephanie Haynes, when asked if a strike is imminent.

"I'd rather not," said Kinton, who added that the membership would have to vote on whether to strike and then issue a notice before doing so.

"We want to take care of our patients. We don't want to go that way," Kinton said.

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