After meeting for a second time with a federal mediator, both sides agreed on Friday to resume discussions on Oct. 29, said Pat Tanner, chief negotiator for the Kentucky and West Virginia Nurses Association Union, which represents close to 800 registered nurses at ARH's seven hospitals in Kentucky and two in West Virginia.
Though nothing "significant" was accomplished during Friday's meeting in Lexington, which began at 1 p.m. and concluded at about 3:10 p.m., Tanner said union officials "are pleased that after some difficulty ARH agreed to meet with us again."
A statement released by ARH said the same, but ARH President and CEO Jerry W. Haynes said the health care system is "disappointed that the union did not come prepared with any specific points of clarification on their issues" as ARH has previously requested.
More than 600 registered nurses at ARH's hospitals in Kentucky and West Virginia walked off their jobs Oct. 1 after contract negotiations with the company stalled just before a Sept. 30 deadline.
Both sides met shortly with the federal mediator on Oct. 8 in Lexington, but accomplished little in terms of reaching a resolution.
The mediator, Herb Fetty, monitored negotiations between the two sides before negotiations ceased Sept. 26 with ARH's final contract proposal, which included an initial 2 percent pay raise that would increase to 3 percent over four years and flexible schedules allowing nurses to work either 10- or 12-hour shifts.
Nurses say they rejected the final offer because it reduced holiday pay and increased insurance premiums, doing away with any pay raise. They have also said they want additional staffing to offset mandatory overtime and reinstatement of the modified work week, where they can work 36 hours for 40 hours' pay.
As the strike begins to approach the one month mark, different community members and union organizations are becoming more involved as ARH officials and union members alike are attempting to make clarifications to the labor dispute.
The Harlan County Fiscal Court on Thursday passed a resolution supporting the local nurses in their efforts to reach a fair contract after about 15 nurses attended a meeting to explain why they're striking - for safe patient care, they say.
The move was a show of support only - it makes no mention of withholding any financial commitments made by the county to the local hospital. But no projects involving financial support from the county are "on the table," Harlan County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop said.
In a statement released Friday by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), a voluntary organization of 55 national and international labor unions, President Jon Sweeney said the federation's 10 million members "stand firmly with the striking nurses" at ARH.
"The nurses at ARH deserve respect and decent working conditions that include fair pay and benefits as well as manageable hours," Sweeney said. "The ARH nurses have shown their commitment to their patients time and time again. They are putting their jobs on the line in support of safe staffing levels."
Debbie Caldwell, chief nursing officer at the Harlan ARH Hospital, said the ratio of nurses to patients at the local hospital "is safe and not only meets established standards in the health care industry, but exceeds them on a regular basis."
In responding to statements that local nurses are losing their jobs, Caldwell said registered nurses who have been permanently hired at the local hospital are residents "of the communities in which ARH operates" its health care facilities.
"These are nurses who live in our community and who have not been able to get a job here because we have been adequately staffed," Caldwell said. "There is very little turnover in nursing staff here.
"That is unusual and you certainly don't see that kind of stability in the vast majority of hospitals around the country. Specifically, there are five nurses at our hospital who have 30 or more years here, nine who have 20 or more years, 17 who have 15 or more, and 29 with 10 and above."
Tanner said the nurses are eager to resolve the outstanding contract issues with ARH and hope the Oct. 29 meeting will be an opportunity to renegotiate an agreement.
"We're anxious to get back at doing what we do best, which is being nurses," she said. "And we just hope that ARH is willing to meet us half way."