EAST LIVERPOOL-Unionized registered nurses at East Liverpool City Hospital say they are ready to strike at midnight Saturday if they don't have a labor contract by then.
Meanwhile, hospital President and CEO Kenneth Cochran said he expects the nurses to vote on the hospital's latest offer today.
Talks between the hospital and the nurses' union, the Ohio Nurses Association, continued on Thursday. Cochran characterized the negotiations as "civil" but said no new bargaining sessions have been scheduled.
The current two-year contract was ratified in May 2012, when there were 147 registered nurses at the hospital. That contract expires at midnight Saturday.
The nurses "overwhelmingly" voted May 21 for a 10-day strike notice going into their final week of negotiations with the hospital. On Wednesday, the hospital announced that it will not accept any new admissions until the labor dispute is resolved.
The nurses' union responded by saying the hospital's decision was tantamount to "daring the nurses to strike and indicating that a mutually beneficial final agreement may not be in sight."
ONA Labor Relations Specialist Christopher Moses quarreled with the hospital's claim that it had offered the nurses "an excellent wage and benefit package" that included pay increases, tuition reimbursement, substantial time off with pay, health benefit options and a competitive retirement plan.
"ELCH says on one hand they are offering our nurses a generous package, but on the other hand are decreasing pay and benefits, claiming a steady financial decline," Moses said. "They have refused to show us their financials to support their claims until earlier (Thursday) afternoon and have yet to show us a proposal that is a supposedly 'generous' offer to our nurses."
Moses said the hospital is proposing to cut the nurses' "time off with pay" by more than a third and to freeze the nurses' wage scale, while offering a "miniscule" lump sum payment each year, rather than any increase in pay.
The hospital also is recommending there be no restrictions on down staffing or mandatory overtime-both of which can be harmful to patients and nurses, Moses said.
Down staffing can lead to improper nurse-to-patient ratios, and repeated 16-hour shifts can lead to fatigued nurses, he said.
Moses said the hospital also wants to eliminate the nurses' right to negotiate over their benefits, retirement plan and health insurance.
"The nurses will continue to work hard for the community, despite their frustration with the hospital," he said. "If ELCH truly cares for their nurses and their families, as they have stated, then they should reflect that during negotiations and stop treating them like a disposable commodity."
While declining to discuss specifics, Cochran said the strike notice could jeopardize the impending merger between River Valley Health Partners, which operates the hospital, and Humility of Mary Health Partners.
In February, the River Valley Health Partners board of trustees signed a letter of intent with Humility of Mary to "fully integrate" the two health care providers. The merger will be official later this summer, pending regulatory approval and finalization of terms.
"This is one of the things that concerns (the partnership with) Humility of Mary. We have to have this done for that to happen," Cochran said.
In the event of a strike, hospital officials said certain departments would have to close but that most outpatient departments would remain open.
The Ohio Nurses Association represents the hospital's 133 registered nurses. The licenced practical nurses are represented by another union.
(Staff Reporter Jo Ann Bobby-Gilbert contributed to this report)