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Mass. Labor Relations Board Sides with Union; Rules that Cambridge Hospital Violated State Labor Law

Friday, August 20, 2010 Hospital News J E 4
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Declared Impasse & Imposing its Last Offer Including a 40% Cut to the Nurses' Retiree Health Benefit Without Exhausting Longstanding Requirements for Mediation

The Board Also Decided to Hold a Hearing on Aug. 20 for the Hospital to Make the Case that Due to Extraordinary Economic Circumstances CHA was Justified in Implementing its Last Offer and Benefit Cut

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Aug. 19 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Commonwealth Employment Relations Board (CERB) ruled today that Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) violated state labor law, by bargaining in bad faith and depriving nurses of their union rights following CHA's decision to prematurely cease negotiations, declare impasse and unilaterally slash nurses' retiree health benefit.

The board upheld the union's claim that the hospital had an obligation to engage in the legally mandated process of mediation and fact finding before declaring an impasse and implementing its last offer.

"We are pleased that the board found the hospital broke the law and violated these nurses' rights," said Julie Pinkham, RN, executive director of the MNA. "The law couldn't be more clear on this point and we are amazed that this employer tried to claim otherwise to gut the retirement benefits of its nursing staff."

The registered nurses of the Cambridge Hospital campus of CHA, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), filed an unfair labor practice charge with the CERB against the hospital on July 1, 2010 for its refusal to engage in good faith negotiations with the nurses in their effort to reach agreement on a new union contract. A preliminary hearing before the CERB was held on July 8. The CERB issued a complaint against CHA on July 12, 2010 and the formal hearing on the complaint was held on Aug. 11.

At the hearing, the MNA argued that this was a simple case involving a blatant violation of nurses' rights, as the Cambridge Health Alliance declared an impasse after only five sessions and without first participating in the legally required process of mediation and fact finding. Subsequent to the decision, the hospital implemented a 40 percent cut to the nurses retiree health benefit and forced the nurses to put in papers for retirement by July 31, 2010 if they wanted to retire with the current benefit. In response, the MNA argued for an expedited decision by the Board to prevent implementation of the CHA retirement cuts, as nurses will suffer harm by being forced to retire early.

While ruling in the MNA's favor, the Board has also agreed to hold a hearing on Aug. 20, to provide the hospital with an opportunity to prove its claim that they are eligible for an exception in this particular case, due to "externally imposed" and "economic" circumstances beyond their control. To award the exception, the hospital will have a heavy burden to prove that circumstances beyond its control required the imposition of a deadline for negotiations and that it was reasonable and justified.

"There is nothing in the law that provides for such an exception," Pinkham explained. "However, we are confident they are not justified in meeting the standards set by the board.

Pinkham points out that the main reason the hospital cited for needing to make the change was a change in the accounting rules regarding pension and retiree health benefit administration, a change that was implemented more than four years ago and that the hospital had negotiated two contracts during that time without making any effort to change the benefit. "This was hardly an unforeseen or unanticipated issue beyond their control. They have known about these changes since 2006 and now have created this false deadline, with only two months of negotiations."

"All the nurses at Cambridge Hospital are looking for is justice," said Betty Kaloustian, a nurse at the hospital and chair of the nurse' local bargaining unit. "The Board got it right. They had an obligation to negotiate with us and they chose not to. For us, this is more than a legal matter, it is about our retirement security and it's about treating people with dignity and respect."

Founded in 1903, the Massachusetts Nurses Association is the largest professional health care organization and the largest union of registered nurses in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Its 23,000 members advance the nursing profession by fostering high standards of nursing practice, promoting the economic and general welfare of nurses in the workplace, projecting a positive and realistic view of nursing, and by lobbying the Legislature and regulatory agencies on health care issues affecting nurses and the public.

SOURCE Massachusetts Nurses Association
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