Mar. 26—A strike hasn't been ruled out by nurses who have been negotiating their first labor contract at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston for more than a year and a half.
Another round of talks is set for April that will be facilitated by a federal mediator who was requested by the hospital and has been involved since January.
"Striking is always an option, and we will not rule out the possibility of engaging in that action if a resolution cannot be reached to the contract or (allegations pending with the National Labor Relations Board)," said Larry Kroetch, business agent for Teamsters Local 690, the labor group representing the nurses.
The administration at St. Joe's is negotiating in good faith and expects to have a labor contract that meets the needs of the staff, community and hospital soon, Sam Skinner, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said in an email.
"Because we are in active negotiations with the Teamsters, and out of respect for the confidentiality of this process, we are unable to comment on the specifics discussed during these on-going negotiations," Skinner wrote.
Union members are frustrated, Kroetch said, because they believe the only agreement the hospital will accept will be one that does not guarantee enough staff for them to adequately care for patients.
They're also worried because, while the hospital has offered to increase hourly wages, a potential change in the way overtime and other kinds of pay are administered might result in nurses being paid less.
"We can see that only one way: (that) they're retaliating against the nurses for forming a union," Kroetch said.
More than 60 of the hospital's almost 240 nurses stopped doing voluntary activities such as working after their shifts have ended, being on call or taking extra shifts, except in emergencies or instances when patients' lives are endangered, he said.
The departments participating include the emergency room, surgery, post-anesthesia care, intensive care, progressive care and outpatient heart and vascular. Kroetch said they have been instructed by the union that if they are told they will lose their jobs for taking that stance to accept the duties and report what happened to the union.
The pace of the negotiations isn't the only issue union members have with the hospital.
Five allegations are pending with the National Labor Relations Board, which refers to them as charges.
St. Joe's officials believe the allegations will be dropped, Skinner said.
Two involve Joe Shuey, an emergency department nurse, who was among those who decided to form the union and serves on the bargaining committee.
Shuey declined to answer questions during a 45-minute meeting with his supervisor he believed could result in discipline, instead requesting a union representative be present, Kroetch said.
Federal law requires employers to allow a union representative in such meetings, he said.
The meeting was rescheduled and Shuey, with a union representative present, was told he would not be disciplined about the issues discussed. But Shuey stopped getting shifts as a charge nurse that comes with extra pay, even though he had regularly been assigned that responsibility before the meeting, Kroetch said.
Another allegation involves the hospital reportedly changing its discipline and investigation procedures without bargaining or an agreement with the union, which apparently resulted in an employee, Sandra Darry-Soderstrom, being discharged, Kroetch said.
A fourth alleges that St. Joe's shifted being on call from voluntary to mandatory in the emergency department without bargaining with the union or an agreement.
A fifth involves allegations about the discontinuation of the night pharmacy.
St. Joe's officials believe a more detailed look at the allegations will result in an outcome that favors the hospital, Skinner said.
"Over the past two years, the union has filed a number of unfair labor practice (allegations) that it was later forced to withdraw after investigation by the National Labor Relations Board," she said.
A formal hearing initiated by a complaint of the National Labor Relations Board may be required to "fully determine the facts" in recent allegations, Skinner said.
"In any event, we know that we have acted in good faith, and we expect that a close examination of the facts will result in the dismissal of these additional allegations," she said.
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