Union rejects hospital offer

LEWISTOWN – Members of the Service Employees International Union decided to reject Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital’s “last, best and final” two-year contract offer during a Thursday voting meeting, said Karen Gownley, SEIU campaign communications specialist. A release issued Thursday by the union indicated the SEIU members working at the hospital will go on a “one-day unfair labor practice strike” on May 6.

Hospital administrators issued a statement late Thursday expressing disappointment at the decision.

“The union’s response is unfortunate because it fails to recognize that our last, best and final offer includes many improvements to the existing collective bargaining agreement,” said Kay Hamilton, the hospital’s chief administrative officer. “We strongly believe that our offer is not only fair, but beneficial to the employees, and that they would be best served by ratifying the agreement.”

There are between 150 and 188 workers at the hospital who are members of SEIU and include service, maintenance and clerical employees and technicians.

In the statement, Hamilton reassured the community of the hospital’s capabilities.

“If it is true they intend to strike, Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital is fully prepared to continue caring for patients without interruption. We believe the union is doing a disservice to its membership by leading them down this path.”

According to the union’s release, hospital management has not provided information about how health care costs for employees are computed based on Geisinger owning its own insurance company, the hospitals and medical offices used by workers. According to the release, it is a violation of labor law to provide this and the strike is the result of that violation.

But there is more to union members’ reasoning than just questions about calculations.

“The two main points,” Gownley said, “are the idea of rolling back the starting wages for new hires and eliminating the pension.”

These issues have been at the forefront of negotiations, which started in January. According to an April 17 release from Hamilton, the hospital’s final offer included across-the-board salary increases as well as step increases, which are scheduled increases at certain points during employees’ careers with the hospital, at the existing wage scales for current employees. Phyllis Mitchell, the hospital’s vice president of marketing and community affairs, said different wage scales may apply to new hires and those scales are determined by Geisinger’s comparisons of the wages at the hospital with the compensation rates at other facilities for the same positions.

Mitchell said 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 patient care assistants, hospital employees were earning more. Therefore, the proposed wage for new employees in those positions would be less than it is now, she said.

The pension plan is being discontinued and will be replaced with a 403(b)-type contribution plan. Pension funds already earned by current employees will be available to them when they retire, according to the release.

“Nobody wants to go on strike,” said Teresa Williams, sterile processing tech at the hospital and chapter president of SEIU. “But sometimes you have to stand up for what’s right. Geisinger makes millions off the work we do, but is trying to take away benefits and lower job standards. We can’t sit back and let that happen.”

Union representatives provided data taken from IRS and bond documents indicating that Geisinger made $300 million last year and its chief executive officer, Glenn Steele, received a 125 percent salary increase, bringing his annual income in excess of $5 million.

“The truth of it is, with small community hospitals, sacrifices need to be made, but we’re not in that position with this company,” Gownley said.

“A company that profitable doesn’t need to take away from its workers and this community,” Williams said. “We hold Geisinger to a high standard, and expect it to keep providing good jobs that strengthen this community, not just put money in the pockets of their executives.”

Gownley said SEIU employees hope the one-day strike will lead to more negotiations.

The current contract expires in January.