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Nurses union files grievance after MaineHealth unit lays off workers

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Nurses union files grievance after MaineHealth unit lays off workers

PORTLAND — A nurses union has filed a grievance against an affiliate of the state's largest health-care organization, following the layoff of four full-time employees. 

Officials of Local 505 of the Maine State Nurses Associations, representing 55 nurses and therapists, said a breach-of-contract grievance was filed on Monday against HomeHealth Visiting Nurses, a subsidiary of Portland-based MaineHealth, whose affiliates include Maine Medical Center, Southern Maine Medical Center, Spring Harbor and Nordx, among others.

Union leaders said that the layoffs are the latest attempt by HomeHealth to break the union. However, HomeHealth said the layoffs were necessary, because the union rejected contract concessions that would have saved the jobs. Those concessions included pay reductions and freezes.

The union contract, which is negotiated with direction from MaineHealth, runs through next October. 

HomeHealth Visiting Nurses provide in-home care to patients in Cumberland and Oxford counties.

Union President Angie Eccles, a South Portland resident, said the union grievance was filed when HomeHealth offered to rehire the laid-off employees on a per-diem basis, at a lower wage and without having to pay for benefits. Eccles said the contract expressly prohibits the use of per-diem employees, especially following the layoff of a union worker. 

"It is illegal for them to do this," Eccles said, noting that she is convinced the layoffs are intended to weaken the union. "It has been a struggle and a power play between the union and the management." 

Union Vice President David Handwerker, a Portland resident who contends that MaineHealth has been trying to weaken the union every since it spearheaded the merger between the unionized Community Health Services and the non-unionized Visiting Nurses Association of Saco, put it more bluntly.

"We are the cancerous limb that needs to be amputated," Handwerker said. "This isn't about budgets and people; it's about power and union-busting."

Eccles and Handwerker argue that the company is financially healthier than it is admitting. They said referrals and patient satisfaction are both up and, until last weekend, the group was fully staffed, a rarity for HomeHealth.

"The company, which has struggled with recruitment and retention over the years, is about to undo the strides made recently to improve wages and benefits that attracted the very clinicians who now make this business profitable," Eccles said. 

But Mia Millefoglie, HomeHealth Visiting Nurses vice president, disputed the union's claims. She said the company had about 11,000 referrals in fiscal year 2009, which ended in September, compared to more than 11,200 referrals in fiscal 2008.

Meanwhile, Millefoglie said the organization stands to have its Medicare reimbursement cut at least by another 2.75 percent this year, as it was in the previous two fiscal years. Also, there are indications, she said, that there will not be a Medicare inflation update and the organization could see another Medicare cut of an additional 2.75 percent.

"Medicare is our primary payer," Millefoglie said in an email. "These reductions have significant impact on out operations budget."

Management met with the union from June through September to reach concessions that would avoid layoffs, Millefoglie said, but the union unanimously rejected wage cuts and freezes and the suspension of three days off in 2010. The union did agree, she said, to early payment of the organization's 5 percent retirement plan. That payment was made from what she called a very modest surplus.

"While the union accepted the early retirement payment, they opted not to assist the agency during the economic downturn," Millefoglie said. "With the economic uncertainties, we were disappointed that the union membership rejected all options for budget reductions."

Eccles said layoffs will mean that the remaining nursing staff will be forced to work longer days and more weekends to keep pace with demand for services. Since the number of work weekends is laid out in the contract, Eccles said another grievance is likely. 

"We never thought they would go through with the layoffs," Eccles said.

Eccles said the company has 10 days to respond to the grievance, but the process can take up to 40 days if MaineHealth seeks extensions. If the union is not satisfied with HomeHealth's response, the grievance will be referred to a state-appointed arbitrator.   

"The (case load) will be way beyond what we can handle," she said. "Ultimately, our patients in Cumberland and Oxford counties will be on the losing end if a single nurse is laid off." 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net