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UPDATE: SEIU members approve contract offer from Highlands Health System; strike avoided

By: Hillary Thornton, Tanner Hesterberg Email
By: Hillary Thornton, Tanner Hesterberg Email
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PAINTSVILLE, Ky. (WYMT) - UPDATE 7/18/14 8 p.m.

Members of the Service Employees International Union approved a contract offer from Highlands Health System Friday evening.
UPDATE 7/18/14 5:00 p.m.

Voting on the "last, best, and final offer' ...that is what highlands regional medical center officials are calling their current contract proposal.

For weeks now the hospital has been in negotiations with the Service Employees International Union, representing 207 Highlands employees. On Friday, those employees made their decision in a vote deciding accept the proposal or issue a strike notice.

Negotiations began as members of SEIU District 1199 became unhappy with proposed health care benefits including high deductibles and removing spouses off of their plans.

Hospital officials say the cuts are necessary to keep the hospital financially viable and that their final offer is a fair proposal as they are hoping to avoid a work stoppage.

Maxanna Cook says, "It includes pay increases each year in the three year contract, it includes hourly wage increases for patient access, billing, phlebotomists, and ER assistants. One of the main concerns was that employees wanted it to include their spouses and it does include their spouses at a very low cost."

Union employees began voting on the proposal at 6:30am, voting remains open through 8:00p.m. Union representatives say after a hard battle of negotiations employees ultimately will decide what they can and cannot live with through this vote.

"There are concessions at stake for these workers around healthcare, in spousal surcharges and higher deductibles. We truly do not know how this vote will go today. We could be issuing a strike notice Monday morning or we could be ratifying a contract, but this is a very hard contract for workers to vote on," says SEIU 1199 director, Joyce Gibson.

Update 7/15/14

Some Eastern Kentucky healthcare workers and their families held a candlelight vigil Tuesday night as they continue negotiations on a new labor contract.

Service Employee International Union members will return to the table with Highlands Health System later this week to try and reach a new deal and avoid a strike.

Around 150 people gathered outside Highlands Regional Medical Center for the vigil. They held candles, sang union songs and marched to show they are united in their negotiations with the hospital.

"I think what tonight means and symbolizes is solidarity," said Joe Burkett, a radiologic technologist at Highlands. "And that we're going to stand together, stand strong and get what's fair."

SEIU members are not happy with changes in healthcare benefits proposed by the hospital, but Highlands officials argue some cuts are necessary to keep the budget balanced.

"The employees who work here are the backbone of this hospital," SEIU 1199 spokeswoman Jeane Chaffin said. "And our whole (purpose) of being here tonight is to show the hospital that we are one."

Leaders at the vigil accused hospital administrators of giving themselves raises - a charge Highlands officials claim is not true.

"There has been a four percent increase in spending," Highlands spokeswoman Maxanna Cook said. "That spending has been on physicians. We've brought in new physicians. That's been a gain for this area because we need physicians to treat patients. Just like the union, we want to take care of patients. Patients are our number one concern."

Highlands and the union will go back to the negotiating table Thursday.

SEIU members are expecting to receive a last best and final offer, which they will vote on Friday. If they do not approve the offer, they could issue a 10-day strike notice.

UPDATE 7/10/14

The stalemate continues in negotiations between Highlands Regional Medical Center and members of the Service Employee International Union.

Hospital officials released a statement late today saying the two sides would meet back at the bargaining table next Thursday.

As of today, SEIU has agreed to not issue a strike notice.

Union members are unhappy with healthcare benefits. Hospital officials say cuts are necessary to keep the hospital financially viable.

The union will hold a candlelight vigil Tuesday evening at 8:30 outside of the hospital.


UPDATE 7/9/14 6:00 p.m.

Trying to meet in the middle with contracts set to expire July 19.

In Paintsville, negotiations could go well into the night between the Service Employees International Union 1199 and Highlands Regional Medical Center officials. Wednesday is the last scheduled day for contract negotiations.

Talks in the past have stalled and one of the hot topics is insurance coverage.

Union members call it unfair, hospital officials say cuts are necessary. However, both sides are hoping to avoid a strike.

Negotiations continued inside a meeting room at the Ramada Inn on Wednesday. Discussions centered around what union members say is an outrageous increase in healthcare cost and taking away coverage of employee's spouses with no wage increase.

Joyce Gibson, SEIU 1199 Director says, "We are trying to reach an agreement but we are worlds apart." She explains, "The employer has placed astronomical healthcare costs on the backs of the workers here at the hospital ... ones in which they simply can't afford, they are trying to force spouses off of their healthcare."

Batina Justice, a phlebotomist with 27 years at Highlands says, "It is just outrageous and unfair. We figure we take care your family and the community ... they should take care of ours."

The union is representing 207 employees like, John Salisbury, who has been with Highlands for 33 years.

Salisbury, a radiologist at Highlands says, "The proposed health coverage would take a third of my salary, that is just for health insurance." He adds, "We've got a good hospital, with good doctors, and we are here together to try and keep on working but we can't work with what they've got on the table."

Maxanna Cook, with Highlands Regional Medical Center, says the hospital's negotiation team is working hard to listen to and meet the needs of employees, but also consider the needs of the hospital.

Cook says, "We are working to keep the hospital financially viable. We of course want to save money anytime that we are able to and we really need to do that right now with several things that have hurt us like Obamacare and a number of other things."

Highlands employees and hospital officials say they are working to reach an agreement that is good for both the hospital and its employees.

Joe Burkett, a radiologist at Highlands says, "I hope we can reach an agreement and a contract that is very affordable and something that works for both sides."

"Right now, the focus has been on unions and employees. When really from the health system our main focus is on the patients. I mean we have patients coming in right now ... being admitted right now or coming in for various things like lab work, radiology, or treatment. Our goal day in and day out is to provide the best possible care for our patients," says Cook.

Once negotiations wrap up on Wednesday, if an agreement is not met ... the union will decide what to do next, which could include issuing a strike notice.

Union members say they expect negotiations to go well into the night.


Negotiations continued on Tuesday at the Carriage House in Paintsville between Highlands Regional Medical Center and the Service Employees International Union.

The union is representing more than 200 Highlands employees.

In a statement from the hospital, Highlands officials say the contract talks center around health benefits and wages.

Negotiations are scheduled to start again at 9 o'clock Wednesday morning and if an agreement is not met by the end of Wednesday, the union could issue a strike notice as soon as Thursday.

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