Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Community proposes a bridge agreement

Today I authorized the Community General management team to propose a bridge agreement to the 1199SEIU bargaining group. We are in collective bargaining because the current labor agreement expires on April 30.

This agreement is a bridge to the future that proposes to hold intact substantially all of Community's current collective bargaining agreement until SUNY Upstate Medical University acquires the hospital in mid-year.

The bridge agreement is important because it preserves the status quo during the several-month period leading to our hospital’s new life as part of Upstate. The agreement will help Community continue working toward our single, most important goal – securing the future of our services for the community by finalizing the agreement with Upstate.

Working together
At the last meeting of Community's board of directors, I was pleased to hear union officials say they feel management and labor have worked together effectively – for the most part – over the years. The current contract is the result of three separate, comprehensive collective bargaining agreements that have defined (and refined) our relationship since 2001. It is a well-honed agreement, and it will serve well in the remaining months of Community’s independent life.

As I have discussed elsewhere, Upstate sees value in Community and has plans to transition our employees to its organization. Upstate is working within the state system on agreements that we expect to maximize the benefit to Community's employees, our medical staff, and our community.

At the bargaining table, Community has been clear about our financial condition and our prospects as an independent community hospital. Although the 1199SEIU newsletter characterized a presentation to the bargaining committee by Pam Johnson, our CFO, as “unfortunate,” Pam told the truth about Community's prospects for the future without Upstate.

Community is fortunate to have an opportunity to become part of SUNY Upstate's health system. As reported in last week’s Post-Standard, there are a number of other hospitals currently knocking on SUNY’s door. Community and SUNY are far along in our planning process, but we are not yet done. Community's management and labor should do all we can to support the acquisition of Community by Upstate. Nothing will be gained (and potentially, much lost) if the agreement with Upstate is denied, or even unduly delayed.

The bridge agreement
The bridge agreement includes only two modifications from the current contract: one clarifies the severance pay provision, and the other terminates Community's contributions to the downstate Training and Upgrading Fund (TUF), upon expiration of the current contract.

The severance provision, which began as a practice even before 1199SEIU’s first contract with Community, was envisioned for people who lose their jobs because Community needed to adjust its workforce from time to time in the normal course of business – such as occurred during the closure of our sixth floor nursing home, due to the Berger Commission. The planned transition of Community employees to Upstate will not take place “in the normal course of business.” It will end business for Community as a stand-alone hospital, and Community will cease to exist as an employer.

The continuation of jobs has been a fundamental goal since we began planning with Upstate. When a Community employee becomes an Upstate employee, severance pay would not be appropriate because the individual’s employment will continue uninterrupted, albeit with the new employer. Although we believe this is consistent with the intent of the current contract, since it does not clearly address this scenario, we are proposing the clarification.

Upstate is expected to make hire offers to substantially all of Community employees. In some cases, however, an employee may not receive an employment offer (for example, if that employee were to fail the required drug test).

Therefore, to advance the Upstate acquisition and to assist employees who may be impacted, Community has proposed that the severance program continue but only for an employee who does not receive an offer of employment from Upstate. The benefit would provide a minimum of four weeks or one week for each year of service up to a maximum of 12 weeks (three months), plus the employee’s earned PTO (paid time off).

The second change would end Community payments to TUF in order to conserve cash to meet the liabilities Upstate will not be assuming (such as the severance costs, discussed above). Community payments to TUF will total more than $500,000 over the three-year life of the current collective bargaining agreement.

If for some reason Community's acquisition by Upstate were not to occur, the bridge agreement includes a reopener.

A required notice
Finally, Community will be legally required to send a notice to employees in the coming months under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) laws. These are federal and state requirements for an employer of significant size that require written notice to employees in advance of “plant closings.”

Because Community will cease as an employer when Upstate takes over, the WARN laws apply to us. Community expects to send a WARN letter to every employee at or near the end of March, anticipating an acquisition date on or about July 1.

Challenges & opportunities
These are truly challenging times. They are precarious times, but they are also rich with opportunity.

Community is working with Upstate in building a bridge to a better health care system for our region as we continue employment opportunities for Community's workers and prepare for the future success of our caring campus.

We appreciate the understanding and support of the Community family and the community-at-larger as we cross this bridge.


Deb Terry said...

Dear Tom, When I read this article (see link) I thought of you. I remember you discussing, several years ago, the use of patient admission kiosks. Technology finally catches up to your vision!


Tom Quinn said...

Thanks, Deb, for your comment and for your recollection.

In so many ways the health care industry remains very balkanized (separate legal entities, differing financial incentives, differing regulations).

Standardizing and financing the technology improvements we take for granted in other industries is problematic in healthcare.

Community is seeking to join the Upstate Medical University system, and this will be a step in the direction of scale and efficiency improvements we need for the future.

Such consolidation, localy and elsewhere, should facilitate technology adoption.