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Nurses set to go public on hospital pact dispute; Picketing notice due at Eastern Niagara

Ten years after a bitter 35-day nurses strike, labor trouble has surfaced again at the Lockport location of Eastern Niagara Hospital.

Bruce Popper, chief negotiator for the nurses union, said Wednesday that he expects to give the legally mandated 10-day notice for informational picketing to hospital management today.

He said the nurses hope to produce some movement in negotiations by going public with their concerns.

They will be protesting a hospital contract offer that, according to Popper, would cut pay for some nurses and pensions for all, as well as require nurses to pay a larger share of health insurance premiums.

Popper said that so far, there has been no discussion of a strike like the one in 2001. "A strike by health care workers, especially nurses, is a last, last, last resort," he said.

Hospital CEO Clare A. Haar issued this statement:

"Like all hospitals and numerous businesses across New York State and throughout the nation, Eastern Niagara Hospital faces numerous financial challenges. These are very difficult times for health care and the economy as a whole. Any contractual settlement must be considered under these circumstances."

Talks between the hospital and the nurses, represented by Local 1199, Service Employees International Union, United Healthcare Workers East, broke off Friday despite the presence of a federal mediator since May 26. Friday's was the 13th bargaining session since March, Popper said.

The contract with the nurses ran out March 31 but was extended until May 27. Since then, the deal has been on a day-to-day extension, which either side can cancel with 72 hours' notice.

There are slightly fewer than 100 full- and part-time nurses in the bargaining unit, along with about 25 per-diem nurses.

Popper said the hospital wants to reduce hours for nurses in critical-care units, including the emergency room, who now work shifts of 12 hours or more.

He said that such nurses typically are present for 13 hours but are paid for 12 1/2 hours; there is an unpaid half-hour meal break. Three such shifts total 37 1/2 paid hours, which is a full workweek.

However, Popper said the hospital seeks to reduce those shifts to 12 hours present and 11 1/2 hours paid, which makes 34 1/2 hours for the week. He said that's a pay cut of 8.7 percent for those nurses.

Also, the hospital wants to freeze its pension plan, meaning that no nurse would receive any more pension credit.

Nurses with fewer than five years of experience, the minimum to be vested in the pension plan, never would receive a pension. Instead, the hospital seeks to start a 403(b) plan, a not-for-profit organization's equivalent of a 401(k) stock market investment plan.

"It's wholly inadequate," Popper said. "It is a very senior group, because a lot of them made decisions about being able to get out at age 62 [with 25 years' service] with full benefits with no reductions."

Starting pay for a nurse at the hospital is $23.03 per hour; top pay for those with more than 30 years of service is $32.75 per hour.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com