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Caritas nurses OK 5-year pact

By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / October 29, 2010

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Members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association at four Caritas Christi Health Care hospitals, including St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton and Carney Hospital in Dorchester, yesterday ratified a five-year contract that gives nearly 1,700 registered nurses pay raises and a new retirement plan.

The votes at St. Elizabeth’s, Carney, Norwood Hospital, and Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton capped months of often tense bargaining with executives of Boston-based Caritas. The financially stressed Catholic hospital system is awaiting approval by Francis X. Spina, associate justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, of its deal to be bought by a New York private equity firm.

At a low point in the talks last month, Caritas negotiators warned that they would have to freeze wages and shutter St. Elizabeth’s and Carney if they could not complete their deal to be purchased by Cerberus Capital Management. But after Cerberus agreed to fund a deeper pension shortfall and the deal won approvals from state regulators, the parties were able to agree on the terms of the pact ratified yesterday.

The contract gives the six-hospital chain labor peace for five years as it converts to an investor-owned health care business under the Cerberus umbrella. And it gives nurses a so-called “defined benefit’’ pension plan they call the first of its kind for registered nurses in Massachusetts. The retirement plan is being created at a time when many employers across the country, including major corporations, are eliminating pensions.

“There were some big nasty bumps in the road’’ during negotiations, said Julie Pinkham, executive director of the nurses’ association. “It was a little bit touch and go for a couple of weeks there. But in light of the current economic environment, this was as good or better than other contracts we’ve seen around the state.’’

Nurses in the four hospital bargaining units will receive ratification bonuses of 2 percent next month, as well as pay increases of up to 2 percent next year. Their pay will be boosted an additional 2 percent in 2012. And in 2013, nurses at three hospitals will get 2 percent more, while nurses at Carney — where many are already at the top of the pay scale — will have the highest step on their scale increased.

The contract contains a “salary reopener’’ clause for 2014 in which the parties could negotiate a further wage increase depending on economic conditions and the financial performance of the hospitals.

In addition, Caritas and the Canton-based nurses union will jointly set up and administer the defined-benefit pension plan for nurses at the four hospitals. Such a plan, which will initially be funded by a new Caritas holding company, Steward Health Care System LLC, and will be guaranteed by the federal government, is a rarity in the nursing profession. Under the plan, the nurses will be guaranteed either a lump sum or specified monthly payment after they retire.

Caritas nurses considered the defined benefit plan the “holy grail’’ of the issues they negotiated during the collective bargaining.

“Hallelujah,’’ said Joan Ballantyne, who cochairs the nurses union bargaining unit at Norwood Hospital. “It’s been a long time coming.’’

Nurses at the Caritas hospitals currently have 403(b) defined contribution retirement plans designed for employees of nonprofits or government agencies. Such plans, similar to 401(k)s in the private sector, allow them to make contributions toward retirement.

Many in the Caritas system also still have pensions set aside in a trust managed by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, the former Caritas owner, which froze pensions at the end of 2003. While no new contributions will be made, Cerberus has agreed to fully fund those pensions for about 13,000 Caritas employees and retirees.

Caritas management considers the defined benefit pension plan a recruiting tool as the system seeks to hire new nurses and improve how it provides medical care, said Richard Kropp, Caritas senior vice president of human resources.

“As you look out over the next 10 to 15 years, this will give our nurses predictable retirement income,’’ Kropp said. He said the overall five-year contract provides stability for Caritas as it undergoes the transition from a nonprofit to a for-profit businesses.

Betsy Prescott, chairwoman of the nurses union bargaining unit at St. Elizabeth’s, said members there are enthusiastic about the new contract, which includes improved time-off benefits and measures to assure adequate staffing levels for hospital nurses.

“This has been what nurses at Caritas have needed for a long time,’’ Prescott said. “There’s not negativity here. The nurses are very hopeful for the growth of the system.’’

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.