Nurses file complaint over wages
Published: February 4, 2013
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ST. CROIX - A nurses union has filed an unfair labor practice charge against the territory's two hospitals, the V.I. government and the Office of Collective Bargaining.
The V.I. State Nurses Association, which represents staff registered nurses at Luis Hospital, Schneider Regional Medical Center and the V.I. Health Department, filed the charge with the Public Employees Relations Board on Jan. 22.
At issue is a negotiated collective bargaining agreement - which contains significant pay raises for registered nurses, along with other negotiated benefits - that has not been executed yet because some of the parties have not signed.
"It's not a fully executed contract for anyone to implement," said Annie Day Henry, the chief negotiator for the V.I. State Nurses Association, or VISNA. "It's a violation for any of the parties to implement this agreement alone."
The unfair labor practice filing seeks to have the Office of Collective Bargaining arrange for the validation and execution of the collective bargaining agreement, which was negotiated in June 2012.
The issues surrounding the proposed collective bargaining agreement are complex.
For instance, although they were part of the negotiating process, neither the V.I. government nor Schneider Regional Medical Center have signed off on the agreement yet - and hospital officials suggested this week that Schneider Regional may not be in a position to pay the raises.
But at Luis Hospital - where critical RN shortages have led to a variety of problems - the hospital board on Jan. 11 voted to give its nurses the same pay raise that is contained in the proposed collective bargaining agreement, after first having a statement of public need outlining a critical nursing shortage read into the record.
The Luis Hospital statement of public need notes that the effects of the critical nursing shortage include longer wait times in the emergency room, fewer available inpatient beds, increased patient complaints and elevated concerns about the ability to deliver safe patient care.
The Luis board, which had approved the pay raises in the proposed collective bargaining agreement months ago, said it could not wait any longer for the other parties to sign off on the deal - and voted to give Luis nurses the raise.
Officials hope the better pay will attract enough staff RNs to fill critical nursing needs and lower the hospital's dependency on traveling nurses, who cost the hospital more.
However, the union takes issue with Luis Hospital trying to give nurses a raise without an executed agreement.
"We're trying to say they deserve every penny, but the process is not correct. The proper process is for all of our members to receive the raises the same day, the same time," Henry said, adding that the RNs at the Health Department and Schneider Regional deserve their raises as well.
"We negotiated an agreement for the body as a whole. We did not make an agreement to separate a third of our membership to get paid while the other members don't get paid," she said. "If you pay a third of our members, you're union busting."
In addition to raises, the proposed agreement also contains other benefits that need to be implemented, Henry said.
She places the blame for Luis Hospital's more critical nursing shortage on decisions that hospital officials made.
"Luis is more short because they decided to dismiss the LPNS and CNAs," she said. "Schneider Hospital did not."
VISNA does not represent the more than 80 LPNs and CNAs that former Luis Hospital Chief Executive Officer Jeff Nelson fired almost a year ago.
The union filing with PERB notes that since the union notified the Office of Collective Bargaining on July 2, 2012, that members had ratified the proposed collective bargaining agreement, it "has not received any assurance from OCB that the employer is ready, willing and able to execute" the contract.
The narrative on the PERB filing also raises the question of possible bad-faith negotiating.
"It would seem that unless the employer executes the CBA, the entire completed CBA was negotiated in bad faith," it says.
Office of Collective Bargaining Chief Negotiator Valdemar Hill said he is aware of the unfair labor practice charge that was filed with PERB.
However, he said he does not understand the premise of it.
He noted that after negotiations in June 2012, officials reached what he referred to as a "tentative agreement."
"I think what is important for the general public to understand is that a tentative agreement is not a finalized document," Hill said. To be finalized, Hill said, a document must be ratified by the union membership and must be approved by the governor. While the membership ratified the tentative agreement, the governor has not, he said.
"As a result, that tentative agreement is not in effect," Hill said. "What is in effect is the last collective bargaining agreement that continues on a day to day basis."
Hill said that he knows the union has taken issue with one of the entities under the agreement considering implementing wage increases, while the other two are not.
However, Hill contends that Luis Hospital is using legal authority it already has to provide for a public emergency.
Luis Hospital "is not implementing the wage increase under the collective bargaining agreement. It will utilize the legal authority it has that provides for public exigency," he said.
Hill said he could not speak for the hospital - but that as far as he is concerned, there is no new agreement in effect at this point.
Dr. Kendall Griffith, the interim chief executive officer at Luis who just started the job last week, said he had not seen the filing with PERB and could not comment.
In another twist, Luis Hospital has not yet implemented the raises.
Chief Financial Officer Deepak Bansal did not respond to a Daily News message Friday, but Griffith said that officials hope to have the raises for registered nurses implemented with the coming paycheck.
Schneider Regional interim chief executive officer Angela Rennalls-Atkinson declined comment about the raises earlier this week, citing the union filing with PERB.
V.I. Health Department spokeswoman Eunice Bedminster did not return a Daily News message Friday afternoon.
- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email email@example.com.