New London — As a dispute between locked-out medical personnel and the administration of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital continued into its fifth day Sunday, the two sides debated patient safety.
A few nurses and technicians continued to picket outside the Montauk Avenue hospital, hoping their unions and the hospital administration would reach an agreement to allow them back to work before the next scheduled negotiating session on Tuesday.
Following a four-day strike that the union ended Saturday — the first in the 101-year history of the hospital — about 800 employees were locked out and told they could not return to work until a contract is in place.
Union spokesman Matt O’Connor has accused the hospital of putting patients’ lives at risk by locking out its workers and hiring fewer replacement workers through an agency in Florida. The hospital has also reduced some of its services.
“We’re going to assume a fair number don’t live in the greater New London area,” O’Connor said Sunday. “It’s typical. We’ve seen this before. Replacement workers are brought in from outside the community. They don’t have a vested interest and earn grossly inflated wages.” Some technicians are earning $100 an hour, he said.
“Our worry is these folks are not vested in the community and many do not have the skills necessary to do the job,” he said.
But Michael O’Farrell, hospital spokesman, called the union’s accusations “irresponsible and reckless.” The hospital, which consolidated patient units in anticipation of the strike, has hired 150 to 250 replacement workers and continues to function, O’Farrell said.
“Since this strike has started patients have been treated well. Patient satisfaction is high. And the quality of care is excellent,” he said.
Two units at the hospital were closed in advance of the strike. Elective surgeries scheduled through Friday were postponed. On Saturday, two operating rooms were available for elective procedures through Tuesday and three more rooms will open for elective procedures on Wednesday, according to O’Farrell. The hospital typically runs six operating rooms for elective procedures.
Most other areas of the hospital, including outpatient imaging and labs, remain open.
“Patients are being cared for, surgeries are taking place,” O’Farrell said Sunday. “Do we want our staff back? Absolutely. But not without an agreement. ... Our focus is one thing — to make sure people receive uninterrupted, seamless care.”
The hospital and union representatives are scheduled to resume talks at 11 a.m. Tuesday with a federal mediator.
“I thought we would have come to an agreement before they locked us out,” said Cheryl Gaudenzi, a nurse who has worked at L+M for nearly 27 years. “We’re all here for the patients. We want to take care of our patients ... but we have to stay together.”
Gaudenzi was one of a handful of demonstrators holding signs and walking back and forth in front of the hospital Sunday morning. The union has placed an oversized padlock, fashioned from black electrical tape, with a yellow chain, on the sidewalk in front of the Montauk Avenue campus.
The union also intends to seek an injunction with the National Labor Relations Board to get the hospital to allow union members back to work.
“It would order the corporation (L+M) to cease-and-desist the lockout, which would enable our nurses and technicians to return the hospital right away,” said O’Connor, who is the communications director for AFT Connecticut.
It is a process that would take some time, O’Connor said, adding that he hopes there is an agreement in place before there is a ruling on an injunction.
Stephanie Johnson, president of the local representing licensed practical nurses and technicians, said union members were outside all night Saturday and plan to picket until the lockout ends. All employees are willing to return to work without a contract, she said.
“We’re trying to remain optimistic,” said Johnson, who sat in union headquarters on Converse Place Sunday morning, beneath a “Wall of Shame” poster that listed several workers who worked during the strike. She said about 10 of the 800 employees who walked out crossed the picket line to work.
“If the hospital called us to sit down and negotiate right now we’d be willing to,” she said.
But O’Farrell said the negotiation dates are set by a federal mediator and the next meeting is Tuesday.
Hospital officials said the lockout was initiated because the union threatened intermittent strikes.
“Because of those threats, we have to ensure patient care continues seamlessly and without interruption,” O’Farrell said on Saturday.
Meanwhile on the street Sunday, passing motorists continued to beep their car horns at the handful of protesters who held signs and cups of coffee.
A neighbor on Montauk Avenue offered the union the use of an empty office in her home.
“If the nurses need it, they’re welcome to have it,” said Gina Phillips, who lives a few doors down from the hospital.
“Nurses are the ones that take care of us,” she said Sunday. “Many have been at my bedside when I’ve been sick, or my children have been sick.”
The union is seeking language in the contract that would require the hospital to offer nurses and technicians whose jobs are transferred out of the main hospital, to what L+M considers nonunion affiliates, an opportunity to continue to work in equivalent unionized jobs at the affiliates. They are concerned about the possible transfer of outpatient services at the diabetes clinic and infectious disease clinic, among others. An unfair labor practice charge about previous transfers is pending.