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Latest News - July 2011

July 13, 2011
HeathNow workers ratify contract, ending lockout
Union members to return to jobs Aug. 1 under 3-year accord with raises totaling 5%
By: Jonathan D. Epstein

Nearly 400 workers at HealthNow New York, who have been locked out of their jobs for more than 12 weeks, ratified a new three-year union contract Wednesday morning, ending a protracted and bitter labor struggle.

More than 95 percent of the workers backed the accord in the 10 a.m. vote attended by Michael Goodwin, international president of the New York-based Office and Professional Employees International Union.

Under the new agreement, employees will return to work by Aug. 1, following a negotiated, paid, two-week vacation, starting Monday.

HealthNow said the delayed start is designed to allow a smooth transition from its business continuity plan to regular operations.

"We're very comfortable with what we achieved," said Deana Fox, business representative for Local 212, OPEIU. "Our membership is just thrilled to go back to work and service the customers and do the jobs they've always done."

The new agreement, reached Friday morning after a marathon 35-hour negotiation, appears to provide a victory for both the company and the union.

"We are pleased to have reached an agreement," said Alphonso O'Neil-White, president and CEO of Buffalo-based HealthNow, parent of BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York. "The elements that were essential to the company are part of the new collective bargaining agreement and allow us now to focus on our future."

The contract provides for wage increases totaling 5 percent over the three-year term of the agreement -- 2 percent, 1 percent and 2 percent, respectively -- plus a $2,500 lump-sum signing bonus, to be paid three weeks after employees return to work.

And the union stressed that it made no concessions on the current benefits package and working conditions. Rather, Fox said, the current benefits are now guaranteed and written into the contract, instead of a clause that would have allowed the company to change benefits at any time.

The contract allows the company to subcontract or outsource work to vendors to provide service to HealthNow members, but also guarantees that none of the 387 current members of the union will lose his or her job as a result.

That meets the goals of the company for more flexibility "to move work wherever and whenever it makes sense," said Julie Snyder, HealthNow spokeswoman. "It's a win-win. It was an important issue."

But it also maintains job protection provisions that the company had originally sought to remove -- a major sticking point since contract talks began in February. The job protections, however, will not apply to any new employees. "It's not far from where we started," Fox said, noting that the company has always been able to subcontract.

Under the new agreement, the company must give 90 days' notice if it intends to outsource or subcontract work, and the union then can offer alternatives, including maintaining the work in-house. If the company still opts to outsource, "they can do so, as long as the folks don't lose employment," Fox said.

Affected workers would be placed into a "supplemental work force pool" -- akin to the jobs banks at automakers -- where they would still be paid at their former rate, giving an incentive for the company to quickly find real work for them.

Ratification ends a lockout that began at midnight April 26, following the final breakdown of two months of labor talks for a new contract. The company immediately activated its contingency plan, using non-union workers to fill the gaps and serve customers.



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