But union officials are, without a recommendation, distributing the company's contract proposals to nurses today, said Pat Tanner, chief negotiator for the Kentucky and West Virginia Nurses Association Union.
ARH's current labor agreement with the union expires at midnight on Sunday, meaning a walkout will occur Oct. 1 if a new agreement is not reached before then. Tents have already been erected outside the local hospital, resembling the days leading up to a monthlong strike by the United Steelworkers last spring.
It would be the first strike by registered nurses in the history of the Harlan ARH Hospital, founded in 1956 by the United Mine Workers to care for miners and their families. Nurses at the local hospital, however, have only had union representation for the last 10 to 12 years. Currently, there are 91 registered nurses represented.
The union, which represents about 800 of ARH's registered nurses, also has not commenced a strike since it began representing nurses in the 1970s.
"This is an offer that our nurses need to review fully and be given the opportunity to vote on," ARH President and CEO Jerry W. Haynes said in a statement. "We're hopeful we will have a new contract agreement in place in the coming days."
Haynes said ARH has offered a highly competitive pay and benefits package to its registered nurses that the health care system can sustain for the long term.
"Our offer gives nurses salary increases, exceptional health care insurance with free medical care at our facilities, enhanced retirement plan options, and more," the statement said.
ARH received an intent-to-strike notice from union officials on Sept. 17 after 10 days of bargaining, according to ARH.
The company has a contingency plan, said spokeswoman Candace Elkins, and will staff its hospitals with "quality registered nurses" from nursing agencies if a strike should commence. Union-represented nurses would also be allowed to work if they choose to.
ARH is urging its registered nurses to review the contract proposal and ratify it tonight. Tanner said a response is expected by 9 p.m. or ARH will withdraw its proposals.
On Wednesday afternoon, she reported that negotiations were not progressing "well at all" at ARH headquarters in Lexington.
"ARH has presented, four days ahead of the end of the contract, its best and final offer," Tanner said. "And in it, it proposes elements that, unlike their projected news releases, cost the registered nurses concessions that result in monetary loss."
One particular area of contention remains the modified work weeks, where registered nurses work 36 hours per week, in three 12-hour shifts, for 40 hours' pay. When ARH abolished the schedule in December 2005, "registered nurses started out losing 10 percent of their salary," Tanner said.
Tanner said the modified work weeks were introduced by ARH in 2001 as a way to recruit and retain new nurses, as well as keep nurses in their respective communities. It was initially regarded as a benefit for the company and its nurses, she said.
"We accepted it, but in accepting it we gave up additional monetary proposals," Tanner said.
In January 2006, the union filed charges against ARH to get the modified work weeks reinstated, as well as any back pay owed to nurses. The union is also attempting to do away with ARH's 2006 implementation of a flexible work schedule (see bullets below) because it wasn't mutually agreed upon.
The case is still pending in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, though Tanner said she expects a ruling within the next six months. She said the union did not want to open contract negotiations "until these two issues were resolved" and is legally seeking "a commitment that you just don't break a contract."
ARH and union officials have held contract negotiations since Aug. 27. According to ARH, key points included in its proposal are:
-- Pay Raises: 2 percent, 2.5 percent and 3 percent pay increase in each year of the contract, which amounts to approximately a $10 million raise;
-- Retirement: Current employees have a choice of ARH's current retirement plan or the ARH Thrift 403(b) plan, which is similar to a 401K and includes up to 5 percent employer contributions;
-- Health Plan: The ARH Health Plan has low premiums and includes free medical care at ARH facilities;
-- Flexible Scheduling: Nursing staff would have the opportunity to work 10- and 12- hour shift schedules;
-- Disability: ARH added long-term disability insurance to its benefits package. Both long-term and short-term disability insurance is offered to nurses for a nominal premium.
Tanner said the union committee currently negotiating a contract for ARH's registered nurses is comprised of 22 individuals. The contract was initially negotiated in the 1970s, with talks now taking place every three years.
ARH has nine hospitals in Kentucky (Harlan, Middlesboro, Whitesburg, Hazard, West Liberty, South Williamson and McDowell) and West Virginia (Beckley and Hinton).