PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The National Labor Relations Board will hear three cases against Berkshire Medical Center.
The local chapter of the Massachusetts Nurses Association had filed a handful of unfair labor relations complaints with the hospital over contract negotiations. The labor board has now determined that three of them have enough merit to be heard.
"We have been trying to negotiate a fair contract that ensures high-quality patient care since October 2016," said Alex Neary, co-chair of the nursing union's local bargaining committee.
"These National Labor Relations Board findings show that while we have been negotiating in good faith, the hospital has been withholding information they are legally required to provide and has tried to intimidate nurses from standing up for their rights in ways that the government has agreed were against the law."
Hospital officials, however, say the hearings are typical for such complaints and welcome the opportunity to defend their actions.
"Although somewhat disappointed, we were not surprised by this development because it is quite common for union unfair labor practice charges to reach this stage. Without being allowed to go to hearings, the union's claims would simply have been dismissed. The hospital now looks forward to presenting its full case to an administrative law judge and, perhaps, ultimately to the National Labor Relations Board itself and a federal Court of Appeals," reads a letter penned by BMC's attorney John Rogers,
The first complaint alleges that the hospital's Vice President of Human Resources Arthur Milano sent a letter to the nurses on July 13, 2017, which represented "misleading consequences of a vote to strike" and which included statements regarding the stoppage of health insurance benefits during a strike.
The hospital, however, said that the letter was sent at a time when there was a possibility of "a gap in their health insurance coverage." But, the hospital says it then arranged to continue contributions during the strike and the nurses were subsequently told that there wouldn't be an interruption.
A second complaint alleges that the hospital failed to adequately provide information on health insurance data. The hospital's contract offers included changes to the premium contributions and nurses say they weren't provided sufficient information to thoroughly understand the proposal.
"BMC is proposing to double the percentage of the health insurance premium contributions nurses would have to make for individual plans. Because the health plans offered by the hospital are self-insured, and so the employer sets the rates, the MNA repeatedly said that they must have this very basic data on how the rates are calculated before considering whether to agree to any particular percentage," the MNA's wrote in a statement on Tuesday.
The hospital says the requested information was not relevant to any analysis of the offer. The hospital says the nurses wanted detailed demographic and claims information about every employee and family member in the plan and "the hospital strongly believes that detailed information about how plan participants use their health insurance coverage was irrelevant to whatever analysis of the plan the registered nurses wanted to undertake."
"Far more importantly, the hospital and BHS Health Plan respect the privacy of all plan participants and felt compelled by that commitment — and federal and state privacy laws — to resist the MNA's apparent view that participant privacy interests were less important than whatever the union's interests were," Rogers wrote.
"The BHS Health Plan and the hospital never turned over the detailed participant information and, it turned out, the nurses' union was able to conduct whatever analysis it wanted without that information. Nonetheless, the apparent charge that the hospital had no right to protect plan participant information from examination by the union will move to a formal hearing."
And lastly, the union is claiming that the hospital did not respond to requests from the MNA for correspondence, contract, and documents between the hospital and the staffing agency it used during the one-day strike and subsequent lockout.
BMC officials say the contracts could not be shared because of the terms. Rogers wrote that the contract contained a provision prohibiting the hospital from releasing the terms of the agreement without written consent from the staffing agency.
Those three charges will receive hearings from the board. The two sides have been in difficult contract negotiations since the last one expired in September 2016. In October, the nurses went on a one-day strike, which was followed by a four-day lockout.
The hospital said it will defend its actions but said it becomes yet another cost incurred because of the negotiations. Hospital officials have previously estimated that it spent $4 million on the strike and lockout.
"Reluctantly, Berkshire Medical Center must now invest the necessary costs to defend its position on these matters. These allegations become yet another example of the enormous diversion of scarce hospital resources and attention into this effort by the nurses — union to force the hospital to improve upon what is already a generous package of wages, benefits, and working conditions," Rogers wrote.
The union then voted to hold another strike in February of this year, but ultimately withdrew it at the last moments as contract negotiations began to progress. Talks have now stalled as the union finishes its analysis of the health insurance portion of the offer.
"Nurses emphasized at the end of their bargaining session that they retained the right to re-issue a new 10-day notice of a new one-day strike date if talks do not proceed and further emphasized that there must be a contractual commitment to improve staffing and progress on economic issues. If another one-day strike were to be scheduled, nurses would need to issue a new 10-day notice to the hospital," reads a letter from the MNA.
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