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Workers at St. E's reject contract offer



Published: Thu, May 10, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Negotiations are tentatively set to resume Friday, and both sides are seeking a federal mediator's help.

By PETER H. MILLIKEN

and WILLIAM K. ALCORN

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITERS

YOUNGSTOWN -- A strike looms at noon Saturday at St. Elizabeth Health Center if no new agreement can be reached by then.

Maintenance and service workers belonging to Teamsters Local 377 voted 550-65 by secret ballot Wednesday to reject the hospital's latest offer.

A strike by the 870 union members would hit St. Elizabeth while 771 registered nurses who walked off their jobs May 1 at its competitor, Forum Health, may still be on strike.

A negotiating session is tentatively set for Friday, and the union and management have agreed to ask for the assistance of a federal mediator, said Ken Norris, Teamsters business agent.

St. E's statement: "We are disappointed in the outcome of yesterday's vote," Chris McCarty, Humility of Mary Health Partners spokesman, said this morning.

"The leadership of Humility of Mary Health partners will meet today to further discuss the situation and how we will continue to meet the needs of our patients."

"We remain hopeful to reach an agreement before Saturday's strike. We continue to look forward to reaching an agreement fair to both sides to prevent disruption in the important health services we provide our community," McCarty said.

Key issues: Wages and paid time off are the major issues remaining in the talks, he said. Because of a system of wage caps, some workers haven't gotten pay raises in more than eight years, he said.

"It's time that these workers get their due increases on their wages. To offer these workers 20-cent increases is an insult to them, and they're not going to put up with it any longer," he said.

The rejected three-year contract offer would have given pay increases of 30 to 45 cents per hour each year to those who haven't reached the pay ceiling in their classification.

Those who have reached the ceiling would get a 20-cent-an-hour increase in the first year and 2.5 percent of their base salaries as a lump-sum payment in the second and third years.

The rejected offer also would have installed new health insurance plans and established a 12 percent maximum annual increase in employee contributions to those plans.

What workers said: Several union members interviewed after they voted Wednesday evening said the pay raises in the rejected proposal would have been negated by increases in out-of-pocket health-care costs employees would have paid, including increased prescription drug co-payments.

"It was bad. It was a sad excuse. I don't think it was half of what they could be doing," Bobbi Terwilliger of Youngstown, a secretary in the cancer care center, said of the hospital offer.

"I work there every day. I see the money that they're dumping into remodeling," including placement of a fountain in the lobby, she said, adding that she voted against the offer.

Others dissatisfied with the offer were Dee Traylor, birth certificate clerk, and her husband, Tyrone, a housekeeper, who reside in Youngstown.

"I think the hospital can do a lot better," said Tyrone Traylor, adding that he has worked for the hospital for almost 20 years and hasn't had a pay raise in seven years.

"The pay raise is inadequate, and the package deal for our [health] insurance benefits is very much inadequate. We're going backward," said Mrs. Traylor, a 10-year employee of the hospital.

The defeated offer would have maintained the paid vacation scale for current employees, but those hired after today would have accrued time off on a lower scale for the first six years on the job and thereafter the same as current employees.

Hospital officials didn't call the rejected package a final offer when they presented it at the bargaining table Tuesday, and hospital officials said then there was still more money on the table, Norris told reporters.

The union represents a broad range of St. Elizabeth employees, including surgery technicians, health-care aides and housekeeping, dietary and clerical workers.

What they make: Current wages range from $6.19 an hour for a starting guest relations worker at the front desk to $19.26 an hour for a biomedical technician at the top step of the pay scale. The majority of union members earn between $7.49 and $10.19 an hour, Norris said.

Maintenance and nonprofessional employees at St. Elizabeth, organized by Teamsters Local 377 in 1997, ratified their first contract with the hospital with a 363-63 vote. That contract, which began in 1998 and expired Wednesday, provided for pay increases ranging from 90 cents to $2 per hour and froze employee contributions toward health insurance premiums over its three-year life.

Local 377 officials conducted membership meetings at 6 and 9 a.m. and 1 and 6 p.m. Wednesday at the union hall to review the hospital's latest contract offer and for members to vote.

Norris said Wednesday morning that the negotiating committee did not recommend ratification. He said there are 10 unresolved issues, including wages, benefits and overtime.

Other areas: A union steward said other unresolved issues include the way vacation and sick time are compiled and major changes in job descriptions that have nurse's aides doing work formerly done by nurses, such as drawing blood and changing dressings and catheters, without increased compensation.

The union steward said the union also is seeking pay increases, increased employer contributions to pension funds and cost-of-living benefits.

Just as Forum Health has hired replacement nurses, St. Elizabeth officials said earlier this week they intend to keep their facility open with replacement workers if there's a strike.

St. Elizabeth said it had received plenty of applications from potential replacements after running advertisements for them in The Vindicator.




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