PRESTONSBURG — Highlands Regional Medical Center union workers and supporters turned out en masse Tuesday evening for a candlelight prayer vigil organized to demonstrate solidarity as final negotiations with hospital administrators approach.
The demonstration by Service Employees International Union District 1199 was meant not only to show unity before upcoming contract talks, but also to pray for a solution that would avoid a strike.
“I’m here hoping for a resolution,” said Prestonsburg city councilman Les Stapleton. “This situation affects not only the people working at the hospital, but the people who come to the hospital for treatment.”
Nearly 200 turned out, from all ages and even from neighboring states, to support the union cause, including a representative from the campaign of Senate hopeful Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Union leaders organizing the rally opened the event with praise for the size of the crowd; the last such rally, three years ago, drew only a meager 40 supporters. They then shared the bullhorn with community leaders.
Prestonsburg Mayor Jerry Fannin told the crowd he was there to support them, and District 1 Magistrate John Goble called the hospital “just a building” without the employees who make it what it is. Local attorney Mickey McGuire gave impassioned remarks about the hospital’s community history, and that it is difficult for an understaffed facility to properly care for patients.
The crowd joined hands to sing “Solidarity Forever,” and marched across the HRMC lawns singing “This Little Light of Mine.”
SEIU 1199 administrative organizer Jeane Chaffin said the goal of the event was to get the community involved, and reiterated that everyone is interested in finding a fair solution. She called the situation “shameful,” highlighting the disparity between the CEO’s nearly $400,000 salary and the terms of contracts on offer that would raise costs for health insurance for employees.
Dietary specialist Charity Stone and respiratory therapist John Salisbury say they simply could not afford taking the current offers.
Skilled maintenance worker Kaleb Yates said the issue at hand transcended the present-day crisis. He says that Highlands Regional is one of the largest employers in the area, and that working in the healthcare industry is one of the last viable careers available.
However, Maxanna Cook says some of the union’s claims are a bit of a stretch. She says while expenses have risen, they have only risen because the hospital has brought on new physicians. Cook also says allegations about exorbitant travel costs actually stem from sending nurses to further their education, and that $10,000 pay adjustments for some higher-ups are not thinly-veiled euphemisms for raises, but actual corrections to errors in the figures.
“Executive pay is actually down three percent,” Cook added.
Both parties agree that serving patients is their top priority, and that they hope to reach a solution.