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General nurses accept new deal

After two years with no pact, agreement is forged with Community Health Systems.

General Hospital RN Terri Matosky, center, announces Tuesday the nurses union has approved a new contract. Colleagues Lori Schmidt, left, and Fran Prusinski applaud the news.

BILL TARUTIS/for the times leader

WILKES-BARRE – For the first time in two years union nurses at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital will have a new contract.

Members of the Wyoming Valley Nurses Association/PASNAP union voted Tuesday to accept a collective-bargaining agreement forged with the hospital’s management Saturday, just hours before nurses were set to walk out in a planned 24-hour strike.

“We are proud that we reached a resolution,” president of the nurses union and General employee Fran Prusinski said. “We will continue to fight for the RN staffing needed for quality care. We will always advocate for our patients, our rights and our professions.”

“We value all of our employees and are very glad to have reached a mutually acceptable agreement with our nurses who are covered by this collective bargaining agreement,” hospital CEO Cornelio Catena said. “Throughout this process, our employees have remained focused on the care of their patients. We are proud of their professionalism and appreciate the contributions they make to our hospital.”

A union spokesperson said nurses voted in favor of the agreement by an 88 percent margin.

Nurses had been working under the terms of a contract that expired in 2009, shortly after Tennessee-based Community Health Systems, the nation’s largest publicly traded hospital company, purchased the assets of the nonprofit Wyoming Valley Health Care System, including General Hospital, for $271 million.

The union said in a statement issued after 9 p.m. Tuesday that most points on which CHS had refused to bargain had been withdrawn in the final agreement, including a contentious clause that would have allowed the hospital operator to modify employee benefits in the contract at any time without negotiation.

Nurses were also allowed to keep a Blue Cross health insurance plan instead of switching to the CHS health plan.

The agreement ended negotiations that began shortly after CHS acquired the hospital on May 1, 2009.

Upon taking over the hospital, CHS recognized the union representing more than 400 registered nurses, but not the collective bargaining agreement in place before the sale. The two sides worked out a 60-day labor agreement lasting until June 30, 2009, but before Saturday they had been unable to come to terms on a new deal.

Since CHS took over, the union has filed a number of complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the hospital of bargaining in bad faith.

Alleging continued bad-faith bargaining tactics, the union threatened to strike in November, and on Dec. 23 nurses walked out for one day.

In a statement Tuesday, PASNAP Executive Director Bill Cruice called the contract “a testament to the strength of our union and the commitment of our 450 members.”

The pending purchase by CHS of three hospitals in Lackawanna, Luzerne and Wyoming counties from Mercy Health Partners has also raised concerns for unionized workers at those facilities.

A Lackawanna County judge approved the $150 million sale in March. In anticipation of the purchase, Mercy Hospital in Scranton announced it would change its name to Regional Hospital of Scranton. Mercy Special Care Hospital in Nanticoke will be called Special Care Hospital and Mercy Tyler Hospital in Tunkhannock will be renamed Tyler Memorial Hospital.

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