After more than a year without a contract — a year that included heated negotiation sessions, two informational pickets and the threat of a strike — Nathan Littauer Hospital and its nurses have reached a tentative pact.
The two sides came to the bargaining table Wednesday morning to negotiate one last time before nurses were set to walk off the job on Monday. Instead, they came out at 2:30 a.m. Thursday with a new contract that both sides deemed acceptable.
“Nathan Littauer is pleased a strike has been averted,” said hospital spokeswoman Cheryl McGrattan. “Everything’s been developing quickly.”
The 144 nurses represented by the New York State Nurses Association have to be briefed on the contract offer before the union or hospital will make any details public, said NYSNA spokesman Mark Genovese.
He said it was obvious, as he received text messages throughout Wednesday and into Thursday morning from those at the negotiating session, that progress was being made. Talks had been fruitless for a year, even before the previous contract expired Dec. 31, 2010.
“There was a commitment that they would sit there and finish the negotiation this time,” he said. “There is an appreciation now for the work the nurses do and the role they play in delivering care. They just wanted that recognition that nurses are important to the process.”
A ratification vote is scheduled for Monday, the day a strike had been scheduled to start at 6:45 a.m. Instead, now that NYSNA has withdrawn its strike notice, a series of small group meetings will take place that day, Genovese said. The negotiating team will be at the hospital as nurses come off their shifts to present them with details of the various contract provisions, answer questions and finally take a vote.
As soon as the 10-day notice to strike was delivered to hospital management, the union made it clear the action was a last resort. Genovese said there has never been a nursing strike at Littauer.
The hospital had a plan in place to continue patient care with minimal interruption if a strike did occur — by bringing in registered nurses from an outside staffing agency.
Patient load issue
After negotiations came to a halt, nurses publicly spoke out through community letters, informational pickets and advertisements over what they called detrimental staffing levels at the hospital. Their main issue was that nurses were being asked to carry heavier patient loads while management cut back on staffing hours.
Nurses also cited concern with the hospital’s ability to recruit and retain nursing staff, as well as the quality of patient care, given the lack of movement on a contract.
After months of silence about contract negotiations, Nathan Littauer management said in a letter to the community last week that the board of directors and administration believe they offered a fair and reasonable contract.
“The fact is that there is no nursing shortage at Nathan Littauer,” the letter said. “For years we have filled any vacancies very quickly. We have scores of nurses who have worked at NLH for decades. For the union to say that we need to pay our nurses more than we have offered … is just not true.”
Although management explained that the economy tied its hands and prevented it from offering nurses what they were asking, the union said nurses had actually helped the hospital save hundreds of thousands of dollars in its last two contracts by restructuring the wage scale and agreeing to freeze its pension plan.
Over the course of the three-year contract, the hospital was offering pay increases of 1.75 percent, 1 percent and 1 percent. NYSNA wanted 1.75 percent, 1.75 percent and 2 percent.
Nurses who had been with the hospital for at least 10 years wanted to continue to receive 18 paid sick days a year, while the hospital wanted that reduced to the 12 days other employees receive.
“We know of no hospital in New York state that gives nurses 18 sick days per year,” the letter said. “The union disagrees and thinks that 18 sick days per year is fair and reasonable.”
Concessions made by either side in negotiations won’t be known until nurses vote on the tentative contract agreement Monday.
“There often is a feeling of relief,” Genovese said of the tentative agreement. “Because let’s face it, a strike is a last resort and it’s very tough. Not only is it tough on the community, but it’s tough on the nurses themselves. And there is always a sense of relief now that we can go back to doing what we do best.”
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