PAINTSVILLE — Union workers at Highlands Regional Medical Center “overwhelmingly” rejected the latest contract offer offered by management, but put off a decision on calling for a strike.
Service Employees International Union 1199 director Joyce Gibson said the decision not to call a strike at this time was made to keep the two sides talking, in an effort to avoid a work stoppage she said neither side wants.
“We’re playing the good faith card,” Gibson said.
The union did not release the vote tally, saying doing so would be against established procedure.
Union negotiators will return to the bargaining table Thursday, July 17, to hammer out a final offer from Highlands. If workers again reject a contract the following day, Gibson said the union would likely issue a strike notice at that time.
“Friday is do-or-die day,” Gibson said.
In the event the two sides are unable to agree next week, Gibson said SEIU would still give a 10-day notice before commencing a strike, as required by law, even though the current contract ends July 19. She said workers would simply work without a contract during the notice.
In a statement released prior to Thursday night’s vote, Highlands expressed a desire to continue working toward a resolution, in order to negotiate “a fair contract that meets the needs of the employees.”
As has been the case all along, the primary source of contention is over employee health insurance, in particular coverage for spouses. Under the current contract, the hospital provides coverage to employees and their spouses. However, when negotiations began on a new contract over a month ago, the hospital sought to end coverage for spouses.
During negotiations this week, Highlands has retreated from that position, instead proposing that employees pay a $110-per-paycheck surcharge for spouse coverage, an amount the union has described as “unaffordable” for its members, which include licensed practical nurses, certified nursing assistants, and maintenance and support staff.
Hospital President and CEO Harold “Bud” Warman justified the cuts by saying in a statement released earlier this week that Highlands is trying to deal with recent changes in the health care system that have put a squeeze on small community hospitals.
“The health care market has changed dramatically as well, and Obamacare has hurt many rural hospitals,” Warman said. “Kentucky’s managed Medicaid in the state has also caused hospitals to have issues such as delayed or reduced payments, and restrictions on inpatient admissions. All of this has led to a tough financial year for the hospital.”
However, Gibson said on Wednesday that management is unfairly trying cut costs at the expense of workers, at the same time it is running up costs in other areas. She said the union recently learned that three top executives at the hospital, including Warman, received $10,000 salary increases in 2013. She said asking workers to sacrifice after providing such large raises to executives ran counter to the hospital’s claim that cuts were needed to keep the facility financially sound.
“We believe they have a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” Gibson said.
And in a statement released after Thursday’s vote, the union said those raises were only the beginning of what it termed a “wasteful spending spree.”
“Despite the continuous decline in revenue at Highlands Regional Medical Center, expenses have increased by $3.3 million between 2012 and 2013, including tripling spending on conferences, conventions and meetings, and thousands more on travel, according to financial documents provided by the hospital,” the statement said. “Now that reckless spending has spiraled out-of-control, hospital executives are attempting to force workers to pay as much $20,000 out-of-pocket for out-of-network services and force employees to choose between no spousal coverage or pay an astronomical amount to retain coverage for their husbands and wives.”