New London — The annual meeting of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, scheduled to take place at 4 p.m. Thursday, has been postponed because of the ongoing labor dispute with nurses and technicians.
Board Chairman Ulysses Hammond said Tuesday that the meeting won't be held "until we get our employees back."
Hospital spokesman Mike O'Farrell said officers of the board of directors decided to postpone the meeting, which was to take place at the Mystic Marriott, a departure from the traditional practice of having the meeting in Baker Auditorium at the main hospital. The new location was chosen to accommodate representatives of The Westerly Hospital, which was acquired by L+M earlier this year.
"Our focus now is on taking care of patients and on getting our staff back to work," O'Farrell said.
No major decisions are typically made at the annual meeting. Instead, it consists mainly of status reports on the hospital and its affiliates. It is usually attended by the 19-member board and up to 100 corporators of the hospital. O'Farrell said the annual meeting has been postponed at least once before in L+M's 101-year history.
L+M's 800 unionized nurses and technicians went on a four-day strike Nov. 27, then were locked out by the hospital when they attempted to return to work. L+M said the lockout would continue until there is a new contract because of a union threat of intermittent strikes. The union denies making such a threat.
Since the strike, L+M has been staffed by 150 to 250 replacement nurses and technicians.
As of late Tuesday afternoon, no new negotiation sessions were scheduled between the hospital and the union representing nurses and technicians. Talks scheduled for Tuesday were canceled when the two sides could not agree on whether the session would be open to union members.
AFT Connecticut spokesman Matt O'Connor said John Carpino, the federal mediator, proposed Tuesday that the negotiations be opened to 15 nurses and technicians at any one time. There would have been a provision allowing some to leave partway through the session so others could attend.
"We would have agreed to that," O'Connor said. "That's a really small number compared to what we've had at some of the previous sessions (before the strike)."
Hammond, the L+M board chairman, indicated he thought limiting the number of attendees would be an acceptable compromise.
"We can't have it turning into a circus," he said.
The hospital's negotiators, however, would not agree, O'Connor said, insisting the session be open only to members of the two negotiating committees.
O'Farrell, the hospital spokesman, declined to comment on the proposed compromise. He would say only that no new sessions were scheduled as of Tuesday.
"We are awaiting word on the next session," he said.
The last meeting between the two sides took place Dec. 3. The lockout will be in its 11th day today.
On Monday, hospital President and Chief Executive Officer Bruce Cummings sent an email message to medical staff about the labor dispute. A copy of the message was obtained by The Day.
In his message, Cummings suggests that doctors can help by encouraging any nurses and technicians they know to "demand of their representatives the ability to vote on management's offer." In full-page advertisements in The Day, the hospital has called on the union to bring its latest proposal to a vote of the membership. The union, however, said the latest proposal has already been rejected by the negotiating team, and nothing can be brought to a vote until there is an agreement from both teams.
In his message, Cummings referred to an offer made by the hospital.
"Through our negotiating team we have indicated that simply allowing a vote will in and of itself end the lock-out," he wrote. "That is, we are offering to end the lock-out provided the RN's and LPN/techs can vote — regardless of how the vote actually turns out."
O'Farrell said the message was "meant to be an internal document" and declined to comment further.
"We are not going to negotiate in the newspaper," he said.
In what it called its "last, best and final offer," made Dec. 3, L+M said it would guarantee in the new three-year contract that no acute-care jobs held by unionized nurses and technicians would be transferred to L+M affiliates outside the hospital. For any nurses and technicians laid off by the transfer of non-acute care services, the hospital would provide six special benefits, including six-months retraining for a new position and severance pay. The union is seeking "follow the work" guarantees that would enable nurses and technicians to keep their jobs at new locations for any transferred services, and to remain part of the union.
O'Connor said the offer referred to in Cummings' memo was not made to the union negotiating team during past meetings. Even if it was, he said, it would have been rejected, because they have already rejected the proposal he wants the membership to vote on.
"He knows we will hold an up-or-down membership vote on a tentative agreement reached with his managers — and he knows our members have already rejected the proposal he's referring to," he said. "His offer is disingenuous at best. After all, we came to talk with his managers today, and they refused to show up."
O'Connor was referring to the negotiation session that was to take place at 1 p.m. Tuesday in Groton, but ended up being canceled. A group of nurses and technicians gathered at the Best Western Olympic Inn where the session was to take place, looking to see if L+M negotiators would arrive to resume talks, even though the hospital said a day earlier that it would not.
In other developments, O'Connor said the state Department of Labor heard five claims Tuesday from the nurses and technicians for unemployment compensation, and said that it will consolidate the claims from all 800 workers in two cases: one representing registered nurses and the other representing licensed practical nurses and technicians.
"The outcome will apply to everyone," he said.
He expects the labor department, which has agreed to handle the L+M workers' claims through an expedited process, will issue a decision in about a week.