The Times West Virginian

October 16, 2013

All working toward keeping Fairmont General alive and vibrant

Times West Virginian

— We have been extremely encouraged by what we have seen from the union workers at Fairmont General Hospital.

You have probably read where they overwhelmingly ratified a new contract last week. And that contract froze any wage increases for at least a year while also calling for the employees to pay part of their own health-care premiums. That’s something they had never done before. Such suggestions usually result in long and messy contract talks.

These union employees are certainly tuned into the situation. They are aware that the hospital recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And as Jason Ware, the administrative organizer for Service Employees international Union (SEIU) recently stated, “Employees came in wanting to save the hospital. They came into negotiations knowing about the bankruptcy, and in order for the hospital to survive, it was going to take sac­rifice by the employees, and that’s where it ended up.”

The SEIU union even sincerely suggested many ways the hospital could cut back.

One involves some sacrifice by the employees. The hospital certainly received that.

“That’s a very unusual situation to be in,” Ware said. These union employees, which number around 300, gave up an estimated $1 million annually over the course of the three-year contract, which does not expire until Oct. 31, 2016. But lawyers for the hospital said that a clause was put into the contract saying that if things get better, the hospital can renegotiate wages in a year. That offers a ray of hope for the union employees.

The Fairmont General employees were well aware of the big changes that have occurred at Fairmont General over the past weeks. The first announcement was that Fairmont General president CEO Robert  Marquardt was no longer employed at the hospital and then followed similar announcements that vice president of finance/CFO Dan Honerbrink and FGH vice president of human resources Jim Harris were gone as well.

There were many other things the SEIU did to make their contract easier on the hospital.

At the time of the announcement, attorney Michael Garrison said that he has spent “a lot of time with the board, and the board took a lot of time to really scrutinize its options. They all understand very clearly their fiduciary duty, and they made a difficult vote, but they made it because they really want to keep an acute-care hospital in Marion County.”

Everyone wants to see that happen.

Kevin Carr, an attorney at Spilman Thomas & Battle, served as the lead negotiator for the hospital and expressed how much the employees impressed him.

“I think it was evident on our side of the table that employees and the union leadership were very, very serious about not only making sure they took care of the members and make sure they had a fair wage and a good benefit package, but it also struck us that they were very serious about making changes that would put the hospital in a position to be viable and continue to provide services in the community,” he said.

“I was personally struck by how much the hospital meant to them and how cooperatively they were willing to address the issues.”

The hospital’s other union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store (RWDS) Union Local 550, will enter negotiations today. This union represents about 170-180 support services and maintenance employees.

So far everyone appears to be working together to save the hospital and showing the kind of esprit de corps that should do just that. These contract negotiations could have indeed been messy. Instead everyone seems to be working toward the same objective — keeping Fairmont General Hospital alive and vibrant.