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With 85 percent of the membership turning out to vote, nurses and medical technicians at Mount St. Mary's Hospital and Health Center Wednesday overwhelmingly ratified a three-year contract, averting a potential strike Friday.

Representatives of Local 1199 Upstate, Service Employees International Union, and hospital management both said they were happy to have the contentious four-month negotiations behind them and to be able to get back to taking care of patients.

Terms of the agreement include a restructuring of the wage scale, with "emphasis on rewarding long-term employees and work experience," said Angelo G. Calbone, president and chief executive officer of the hospital.

Those at the top end of the pay scale, which includes half of the 175 members, will receive 15 percent increases over the life of the contract, according to Larry Alcoff, chief negotiator for the union. He said the lowest-paid employee at the top of the scale would receive an hourly increase from the current rate of $22.07 to $25.59 by the end of the agreement.

The range of increases in the first year went from zero to 4 percent, depending where the employee falls on the wage scale, according to Calbone and Deborah Serafin, vice president of human resources. A pension increase in the second and third years of the contract will amount to a 20 percent raise in the contribution by the hospital over three years, Alcoff said.

The figures for the total package were still being computed, but Calbone said they are expected to fall within the budgeted range and "will challenge but will not jeopardize the organization." Calbone said the hospital is losing money.

The contract also restricts use of mandatory overtime to four hours. The issue was hotly contested by the membership, which claimed the hospital was using overtime as a scheduling tool, jeopardizing the quality of care and the safety of patients.

Calbone disputed that, pointing to a concerted recruitment effort over the past 18 months that has increased staffing and limited the use of overtime.

Alcoff agreed that some strides had been made in the past year. He said the new contract will make it very hard to use mandatory overtime because there are so many "hoops to jump through" and, he believes, it will "virtually eliminate" the practice.

The union also won another concession: Its contract and that of the hospital service and maintenance employees will expire at the same time, on July 5, 2003.Alcoff said that means that for the first time, more than 350, or about half of the hospital's employees, will go to the bargaining table at the same time. Serafin, however, said they are separate units with separate contracts, which will be negotiated separately.

The nurses had issued a strike notice nine days ago, which Alcoff and other members of the union believed turned the tides in their favor. The notice would have come at the same time as a hospital accreditation commission was conducting a three-year review of Mount St. Mary's, which Alcoff said "was not coincidental."

He believes those factors and the membership's determination to strike changed the tone of negotiations Monday night.

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