By Mary Wade Burnside
Times West Virginian
Union workers “overwhelmingly” ratified a new contract with Fairmont General Hospital on Friday that froze any wage increases for at least a year and also has them paying part of their health benefit premiums, which previously they had not done before.
The contract negotiations with Fairmont General came on the heels of the hospital’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in early September and also continued through an administrative upheaval that saw the departures of the facility’s president and CEO, the chief financial officer and the vice president of human resources.
“That’s a very unusual situation to be in,” said Jason Ware, an administrative organizer for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199, on Monday.
However, added Ware, a Fairmont native and a former Fairmont General employee who works for the union out of Huntington, “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.”
Altogether, Ware said, the 300-plus hospital employees who belong to SEIU 1199 gave up $1 million annually over the course of the three-year contract, which expires Oct. 31, 2016.
“It’s pretty significant,” Ware said. “However, we put a clause in there that if things are better the hospital can renegotiate wages in a year.”
Technically, said Kevin Carr, an attorney at Spilman Thomas & Battle in Morgantown who represents the hospital, that is called a “reopener,” and the only thing that could happen is that the wage freeze would remain in place or they could be increased.
“We agreed to open that wage issue a year into the agreement to see where we are,” Carr said. “We’re not going backward so there would be the chance it would stay the same or increase, depending on the market at the time.”
Along the same lines, the health benefit issue can be revisited in two years, both Ware and Carr added.
Fairmont General officials announced the plan to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the end of August as a way to make the facility more appealing to a strategic partner or a buyer, which administrators had been seeking since the end of 2011.
“It’s obviously a step we would have preferred not to have to take, but I think it is very clear that if we are going to go forward, we have to take this step,” said Robert C. Marquardt, then-president and CEO, upon releasing the news about filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
As of two weeks ago, hospital officials announced that Marquardt and CFO Dan Honerbrink were no longer employed by Fairmont General. A week later, it was announced that Jim Smith, the hospital’s vice president for human resources, had left, with his last day being Sept. 27.
Peggy Coster, who was named interim president and CEO of Fairmont General, could not be reached Monday for comment.
Carr 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 added. “I was personally struck by how much the hospital meant to them and how cooperatively they were willing to address the issues.”
The union actually came up with ideas on ways the hospital could cut back, such as on tuition reimbursement, which could save Fairmont General $60,000-$70,000 annually.
In addition to the wage freeze and paying into health benefit premiums, salaries for employees when they are on call took a hit, Ware said, and employees will be taking fewer holidays.
Terri Walker, a registered nurse at Fairmont General as well as a member of the executive board of SEIU 1199, said the union employees come from the ranks of nurses, lab techs, radiology techs and monitor techs.
In addition to health benefits, she said employees agreed to a concession on their pension contributions.
Both Ware and Walker did not give an exact number of employees who agreed to the new contract, but said the support was “overwhelming.”
“I think it was mixed emotions about it,” Walker said. “Because of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy, I guess we knew we had limitations and we knew we needed to do whatever it took to keep the hospital open.”
The SEIU 1199 union members’ contract actually was due to expire and the time had come for negotiations anyway just as the hospital filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The hospital’s other union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store (RWDS) Union Local 550, represents about 170-180 support services and maintenance employees.
Previously, Jeffrey Greenly, the president of RWDSU Local 550, said the union’s contract was renewed last year and negotiations for the next one were not due to take place for another two years.
However, in light of the bankruptcy filing, RWDSU Local 550 members now will enter negotiations, which are due to begin Oct. 15, Carr said. Greenly did not return a phone call in time for this story.
The SEIU 1199 contract will go before the bankruptcy court in Wheeling for final approval, which Carr said would take place “in the near future.”
“Both parties will agree to support it to make sure it’s approved,” he added.
Email Mary Wade Burnside at email@example.com.