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Nurses slam Flushing Hospital for suspending pension

Nurse Christine Viloria (r.) looks on as her husband Mark and dog Mischu march in a picket line outside Flushing Hospital. Photo by Joe Anuta
TimesLedger Newspapers

Unionized nurses negotiating a contract with Flushing Hospital are furious that management did not sign an agreement to continue their pension plans while the two sides duke it out at the bargaining table.

“This is really mean-spirited stuff,” said Wanda Shelton-Martin, a representative of the New York State Nurses Association. “This hospital is not caring for its nurses.”

About 50 people gathered outside the hospital, at 45-00 Parsons Blvd., last Thursday to condemn the hospital for not signing the interim agreement, which would keep pension and health-care benefits intact for six months while a contract is hammered out between the hospital and the 350 nurses who are affected.

As of press time Tuesday, when a bargaining session was scheduled, the two sides had not signed an interim agreement or a contract agreement.

An agreement already in place protects health care benefits for 90 days into 2012, but pensions have not been accruing money since the contract ran out at the end of the year.

Regardless, union spokesman Mark Genovese said nearly every hospital that negotiates a contract signs an interim agreement. Without it, some of the nurses could lose their health care if the bargaining goes beyond the 90 days.

“No nurse should be without health care,” he said.

Michael Hinck, spokesman for the hospital, which is a part of the Medisys network, said the two sides will try again to reach a consensus this week.

“Negotiations are ongoing,” he said.

Ken Margolies, of the Cornell School of Industrial Labor Relations, called the hospital’s refusal to sign an interim agreement “slightly aggressive.”

“It’s normal, when parties are in negotiations, to maintain the status quo,” he said. “But things like that are becoming less unusual because more and more employers are playing hardball.”

The move is likely designed to put pressure on the union, he said, and it makes the interim benefits one more thing that it will have to bargain for.

In the new contract, which must be renegotiated about every three years, nurses are asking for a continuance of current health care benefits, pension benefits and pay raises of a few percent, according to Shelton-Martin.

The union claims the hospital wants to freeze their pensions and pay, she said.

Despite the recession and general precarious state of the economy, Shelton-Martin said Flushing Hospital and its parent organization can afford the pay raise and keep the nurses’ pensions and health benefits intact.

The nurses were out last Thursday during their lunch break from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. clad in red shirts. Many held signs and shook noisemakers over their heads during any lull in the speeches.

At one point, a man walked by and was heavily booed by the crowd.

A woman asked, “Who’s that?”

The man next to her stopped booing and shrugged his shoulders.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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