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Queens Chronicle

Hospital workers rally over contract

Union blasts St. Mary’s CEO, while hospital calls claims ‘distortions’

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Posted: Thursday, October 4, 2012 10:30 am | Updated: 11:46 am, Thu Oct 11, 2012.

While the Sept. 27 grand opening ceremony in honor of the new patient pavilion at St. Mary’s Hospital for Children in Bayside was taking place inside, an estimated crowd of 300 of the facility’s employees and their supporters gathered on the nearby streets to rally for what they called a fair contract that would provide quality, affordable healthcare and other benefits, including pensions, job security and access to training.

As reported two weeks earlier in the Chronicle, the workers’ union, 1199SEIU, had filed an unfair labor practice charge against the hospital, claiming officials withheld financial information relevant to contract negotiations.

According to a prepared statement from the union, the healthcare workers “provide the best care possible at SMHC. It is more than our job, it is our mission.”

The union claims that Jeffrey Frerichs, St. Mary’s president and CEO, “has launched a vicious and highly personalized anti-worker/kid campaign,” leading to “unusually high turnover rates, especially among registered nurses.”

Among the speakers at the rally was Deatra Fowler, a licensed practical nurse who has been at the hospital for three years. She said afterward, “We’re asking for fair pay, fair benefits, fair pension, affordable health care.”

She claims the hospital has been negligent in paying for the workers’ healthcare bills for up to six months.

“They’re acting like they haven’t a clue,” she said. “They say, ‘Bring [the bills] in.’ They’re still not paying them.”

Mark Bergen, vice president of 1199SEIU, said the workers “want a voice in improving conditions for themselves and the children. The facility has not been respecting the voice of the workers. The workers are seeking other employment. It is not good for anybody.”

Bergen said Frerichs has “repeatedly taken a provocative and personalized approach to bargaining. He does not understand how this is a partnership.”

As of deadline time, Frerichs failed to return several calls from the Chronicle seeking comment, but a representative issued a statement on the hospital’s behalf that reads, in part, “During tense labor negotiations of this kind, emotions often run high, but we understand that all parties have the same shared goal to come to a reasonable solution.

“We have been diligently working to reach a settlement with 1199 that ensures our vulnerable population of child patients continues to receive the highest level of care. Unfortunately, the union is distorting the facts with inaccurate portrayals of our finances. Last year, St. Mary’s ended the fiscal year with an $8.5 million deficit. It has a projected deficit for this year of $5 million.

“Despite our difficult financial situation and inadequate reimbursements, we are still offering our employees a wage increase that is fair.

“We are willing to work cooperatively with 1199, but they need to negotiate based on the facts, not on distortions.”

The matter has been taken to the National Labor Relations Board, according to Bergen, who indicated that the union wants the hospital’s financial records “to be transparent. I believe they’ll continue to stall.”

Bergen said that the situation “could lead to a trial with the government,” which he said could take a few months.

Bergen admitted that the hospital did turn over some records after the union filed charges, but called them “vastly incomplete.”

Talks have been going on since October 2011.

“We’re going to continue to pursue it. We feel confident the board will find for us,” Bergen said.

As for possible further action, Fowler said, “We don’t want to strike because of the kids. We have to do what we have to do.”

A mother herself, Fowler added, “My kids have to go to the doctor. We still have to eat. We’re prepared to do whatever it takes.”

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