Negotiations between Forum Health and Trumbull Memorial nurses have begun on a positive note, a union leader said.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
WARREN -- Still readjusting from a bitter 81-day strike by nurses at its Mahoning County facilities, Forum Health appears to be putting talks on a fast track for its unionized nurses at Trumbull Memorial Hospital in Warren.
Tom Connelly, president of United Nurses of America at TMH, said the union had its first negotiating session with the hospital Tuesday, just four days after Forum settled a long walkout by the 771-member Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association.
He said Forum officials have scheduled about 15 more sessions with the UNA over the next two months, including several all-day meetings.
UNA, an arm of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2026, represents 450 registered nurses at TMH. The union had its own 12-day strike in 1998 before ratifying a three-year contract, now set to expire Oct. 1.
Eliminating tension: "I think both sides would like to settle as soon as possible to eliminate any apprehension that we might go on strike," Connelly said.
"There's a good deal of tension, among the doctors at the hospital and in the community in general."
Connelly said the hospital's bargaining team had a "very collaborative demeanor" at the first negotiating session and called the general tone of the talks "very favorable."
Evonne Woloshyn, Forum spokeswoman, said the hospital would not discuss the negotiations.
"We just want to say, of course, that we are committed to bargaining in good faith to reach a fair and equitable agreement for both the nurses and the hospital," she said.
Other hospital officials were unavailable to comment late last week, she said, because they were busy conducting orientation sessions and handling other details to get members of the YGDNA back to work as quickly as possible.
Overtime issue: The YGDNA struck Northside Medical Center, Tod Children's Hospital and Beeghly Medical Park on May 1, calling for an end to mandatory overtime. The walkout did not affect TMH or Forum's other Trumbull County medical facilities.
Nine union members crossed the picket line to return to work during the union's lengthy walkout, and hospital officials promised to have the remaining back to work by this weekend.
Bonnie Lambert, YGDNA president, said the first shift of staff nurses returned to work at 7 a.m. Sunday. The nurses met at 6:30 a.m. in the parking lot at Northside and entered en masse, pausing for a short meeting in the hospital auditorium before heading to their floors.
Connelly said parity with the Mahoning County facilities will likely be a major issue for the TMH nurses talks.
Forum's registered nurses at TMH earn an average wage of $20 an hour, he said, and Northside and Tod nurses averaged $23 an hour before their new contract, which added raises of 4 percent per year for three years.
Mandatory overtime was the major sticking point for YGDNA. Its new contract restricts the use of forced overtime and stipulates that it may not be used after 18 months.
Connelly said mandatory overtime and related staffing issues won't be as big a concern for the UNA because its current contract already contains limitations on the use of forced overtime and the hospital has complied with them.
For example, a nurse can be forced to stay past his or her shift only once in a week, twice in a two-week pay schedule and three times in a month. Nurses earn time and a half the first time in a month that they're forced to work overtime and earn twice their regular salary the second and third times.
"One reason it works is that our bargaining unit has always been willing to share the pain as well as the pleasure," Connelly said.
TMH nurses cooperate so that holidays and summer vacation time, as well as mandatory overtime, are shared, regardless of seniority.
Agency nurses: YGDNA's new agreement allows the use of agency nurses, along with other staffing alternatives, before mandatory overtime is used. Connelly said the UNA isn't likely to accept that option.
"I have a problem with agency nurses," he said. "They get paid a pretty big buck to fill our holes, and I'd rather see that money going to our own staff nurses."
The TMH union will be pushing, instead, for more recruitment and retention efforts to increase the nursing ranks, perks such as tuition reimbursement, flexible scheduling and bonuses for working extra hours.
Connelly said TMH is struggling with a nursing shortage, but so are most hospitals across the country. "We've got to be competitive, and we need incentives so that this is not just a great place for patients but a great place to work as well," Connelly said.
Hopeful outlook: He said the UNA gave the company its first contract proposal last week and the bargaining team is hopeful its contract might be settled well before the Oct. 1 deadline. He said he won't have an idea whether that's feasible until he sees Forum's counteroffer at the next negotiating session, scheduled for the second week in August.