Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital, union disagree on wage package

LEWISTOWN – Officials from Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital and representatives of the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union are in the midst of negotiating a new contract for the hospital’s service employees. And while there is a back-and-forth exchange in any negotiation process, the union and the hospital are at odds on one major point: pay scales.

The Sentinel became aware of the contention because of complaints stating the new negotiations included pay cuts for housekeeping and personal care aids, but on Thursday Geisinger-Lewistown Chief Administrative Officer Kay Hamilton issued this statement to the hospital’s SEIU members:

“Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital has proposed new wage scales effective at ratification of the contract. It is important to know we have also proposed that NO current employee has a wage reduction. In addition, current employees have all been offered lump sum increases effective with the ratification. As of Wednesday, March 20, we proposed a 1.5 percent lump sum increase in both 2014 and 2015.”

SEIU chapter president Teresa Williams confirmed that according to the current proposal, the terms of which are still subject to change, no current employee will experience a reduction in wages.

Phyllis Mitchell, the vice president of marketing and community affairs at the hospital, said the pay scales for new employees are under review by Geisinger. This review will compare the wages at the hospital with the compensation rates at other facilities for the same positions.

Mitchell said that in a few cases, such as in the maintenance department, it was found that employees were earning less than their counterparts at other facilities. In most cases – including housekeeping and PCAs – G-LH employees were earning more. Therefore, the proposed wage for new employees in those positions would be less than it is now, she said.

Williams said the problem with this, as the union sees it, is it effectively freezes wages for current employees – in some cases for nearly 30 years, if the rates would stay the same.

“The way this has been done for 40 years, we get what they call step increases,” Williams said.

SEIU member employees get a raise once a year for their first five years of employment. After that, raises are given at 10 years of service, then 15 years and so on at predetermined intervals and rates.

Williams said if a reduced wage scale would go into effect, when it’s time for an employee’s step increase, he or she may already be making more than the rate suggested for someone with that many years of service; so while there would be no pay cut, there also would be no hourly wage increase.

For some employees, this could mean staying at the same wage for years. Williams gave an example of a current employee who makes $14.04 an hour after five years of service. She said the proposed starting wage for a new hire in that position, according to a chart that was part of G-LH’s proposal, is $11.94. According to the chart, Williams said, the new hire’s pay rate would be $13.79 after 25 years of service, so the current employee would remain at $14.04 until the 30-year mark.

Williams says that would ruin morale.

“I don’t know how they expect to keep any good employees,” she said. “No one’s going to want to stay.”

Williams also expressed concern for new employees.

“They have people, entry-level dietary and housekeeping positions, coming in at less than $10 an hour. If they up the minimum wage, that’s less than minimum wage,” she said.

An increase in the federal minimum wage has been a talking point of the Obama administration for the last several months, but no legislation has been enacted at this point.

Williams said the lump sum increase proposed for the next two years doesn’t sit well with the union members, either.

“We feel like we’re being smoothed over,” she said. “I don’t feel like we should settle with a 1.5 percent lump sum.”

Williams said the lump sum increase is more like a bonus and, as currently proposed, would only be for two years.

“So if you have someone making $30,000 a year, they’d get $450 twice,” she said, whereas an employee who gets a step increase is guaranteed that wage each time he or she is paid.

Both Williams and Mitchell emphasized that nothing has been finalized; the proposal, including the pay scales in it, is subject to change.

The next negotiation meeting between hospital and union officials is scheduled for April 15.