By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- A hospital executive says "philosophical differences" are at the root of the dispute keeping 870 workers on picket lines at St. Elizabeth Health Center and other Humility of Mary Health Partners facilities.
Michael Rowan, chief executive of HMHP, said the health-care company's wages are competitive, and the HMHP has offered across-the-board raises and benefit improvements. "To be honest, I don't know why anybody is on strike," he said.
But Chris Colello, president of Teamsters Local 377 which represents the striking service and maintenance workers, argued that more than half its members are getting "poverty wages."
"People at St. Elizabeth's don't retire. They just reduce their hours because they can't afford to retire," Colello said.
Met with commissioners: Colello and Rowan marked the sixth day of the Teamsters strike against HMHP by exchanging views -- and trading a few barbs as well -- at a meeting with Mahoning County Commissioners on Wednesday.
Bonnie Lambert, president of the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association, also attended to explain the position of 766 Forum Health nurses who have been on the picket lines at its Mahoning County facilities since May 1.
N. Kristopher Hoce, Forum president and chief executive, declined the commissioners' invitation to speak, however. He sent a letter instead to explain the hospital chain's position.
Reason for meeting: With Youngstown's two major hospitals both grappling with employee walkouts, Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock said she organized the meeting so commissioners could learn firsthand about the issues and could offer their help in resolving the disputes.
Rowan said St. Elizabeth's patient census has been higher than its projections and higher than before the strike -- a hospital news release reported the census count at 370.
He said most of the striking workers are not "front-line bedside employees," and most of the company's 5,400 employees are still working.
HMHP hired "a couple hundred" replacement workers, most from the area. Security officers from outside the area also were hired to assist the HMHP police force.
Rowan said HMHP officials accept the employees' right to unionize and to strike but, "I sometimes scratch my head at the Teamster leaders who have never worked in a hospital in their lives."
Colello corrected him later, saying that Teamster representative Ken Norris was a 25-year hospital employee.
About negotiations: On the subject of negotiations, Rowan argued that HMHP pays "above-market value for individual jobs compared to what other people pay for the same job."
He noted that the company also provides subsidized day-care and tuition reimbursement, a career placement service to help employees advance their careers and health insurance available to full- and part-time employees.
Colello read statements supporting unions and fair labor practices written to Pope John Paul II and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to support his claim that HMHP is not following "Catholic values" in its treatment of employees. He said wages, health insurance and forced overtime are all issues.
"Today they are trying to bust a union that the pope says is an integral part of social justice," Colello said.
HMHP talks planned: Talks are scheduled at 3:30 p.m. Monday at the Holiday Inn in Boardman, but Colello said they should begin immediately. "These people are on the street. Why delay?" he said. "Let's go to the table now."
Colello also complained that HMHP security officers caused the scuffle that occurred at St. Elizabeth's on Monday when HMHP security officers reportedly linked arms and tried to force their way through the picket line.
Striking workers said one security officer sprayed several strikers with pepper spray, pointed a gun at one worker's head, and injured another while trying to arrest him. HMHP officials have said one officer also was hit by a striker.
Big issue with Forum Health: Lambert, president of the nurses union, told commissioners that mandatory overtime is the main sticking point in talks with Forum. Nurses say they are being required to work up to 16 hours at a stretch and the practice is being used as a staffing tool and not just for emergencies.
YGDNA has suggested special, shorter shifts to accommodate mothers of school-age children and the use of retired nurses who could supplement the nursing staff as an alternative to mandatory overtime, Lambert said.
In the statement, Hoce said Forum's contract offer to the nurses includes limits on mandatory overtime, along with pay raises of 3 percent a year for three years and pension enhancements.
He said the hospital's plan to "virtually eliminate" mandatory overtime over three years would have nurses volunteering for overtime slots, would pay nurses premium pay and added monetary incentives for working overtime and would limit mandated overtime.