Leaders of the unions representing Mount St. Mary's Hospital's nurses and medical technicians said Sunday that a vote on a job action will be taken Wednesday if contract talks with the hospital aren't settled by then.
The action would start at 7 a.m. Friday. Whether it would be a strike, picketing or some other form of work stoppage will be decided at the Wednesday meeting.
In a news conference Sunday, Larry Alcoff, chief negotiator for Service Employees International Union 1199 Upstate, blasted the hospital for planning to bring in out-of-town temporary replacement nurses if there is a strike.
U.S. Nursing Corp., a Denver-based company that specializes in providing replacement nurses to hospitals hit by strikes, has been retained by Mount St. Mary's, according to hospital President and Chief Executive Officer Angelo G. Calbone.
"Once we're served with a strike notice, we must have a contingency plan," Calbone said. "We have patients we have to care for. . . . We're not dealing with a production line or a factory that we can turn off."
Alcoff termed the decision to hire U.S. Nursing "very scary." He provided reporters at the news conference a sheaf of printouts from newspaper Web sites all over the country reporting on errors allegedly committed by U.S. Nursing employees at various hospitals.
Calbone said that before U.S. Nursing was hired, "We checked a number of references as to their performance at other hospitals." He said he was satisfied that any replacement nurses will be fully licensed in New York and certified in their specialties.
Alcoff displayed a classified advertisement in Sunday's Syracuse Herald-American, offering temporary nurses as much as $3,400 a week. That ad did not mention work for U.S. Nursing at Mount St. Mary's, but a call by The Buffalo News to the toll-free number in the ad confirmed that was its purpose.
The advertised salary offended Alcoff. "That's four times more than the highest-paid 20-year nurses at (Mount St. Mary's)," he said. "It's more than we've ever dreamed of proposing."
Calbone wouldn't confirm the salaries, but he did say that the hospital would be paying higher salaries to U.S. Nursing replacements than it would to its employees. However, the replacements would receive no benefits.
Calbone wouldn't say how many replacement nurses would be supplied. "As many as we need," he said, adding the number could differ from day to day.
Talks haven't come close to settling the wage issue. Alcoff said the hospital's first offer was a 1.5 percent raise. Mount St. Mary's confirmed that in a news release and said the union's opening demand was for a 12 percent hike.
Calbone said that later the union proposed a complete restructuring of the pay system, which Alcoff confirmed. "Our analysis shows that would be as expensive as, if not more than, their original proposal," Calbone said.
Workers charged that the hospital demands mandatory overtime with two hours' notice, and they want an end to it. DeLois Wooten, a 17-year registered nurse, said, "If you have a heavy patient load after eight hours, I feel tired, I feel unsafe."
Calbone said the hospital does not schedule mandatory overtime and orders it as a last resort if part-time nurses, full-timers who are supposed to have the day off and request for voluntary overtime can't fill the gaps.
Negotiations have been going on since May, and the 175-member union's contract ran out in July. The union wants only a short-term deal to expire March 17, the same day the Service Employees International contact covering service and maintenance workers at Mount St. Mary's runs out. The hospital wants a three-year deal so it doesn't have to go through more negotiations immediately, Calbone said.
Talks have been refereed by a federal mediator since last Monday and will continue today.