If the registered nurses at UPMC Altoona strike as planned for 24 hours next week to protest alleged shortcomings in the hospital's final contract offer, the hospital might not lock them out afterwards for a time in order to punish them, according to the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board.
Based on labor law, "there can be no punitive actions taken," said Bob Chester Wednesday.
That doesn't mean they will necessarily be able to return immediately.
Over the weekend, when asked about the potential for a post-strike lockout, hospital spokesman Dave Cuzzolina wrote: "those employees who are now unconditionally available to return to work may have a transition to allow a reasonable and orderly return back to their ordinary operations."
That sounds like a carefully "crafted" description of a plan designed to keep the hospital within the law, Chester said.
Chester acknowledged that the hospital could argue that cutting a deal for replacement nurses for a single day could be expensive and impractical, and so try to justify arranging for a longer-term deal - and thus postponing the return of the regular nurses.
The union might argue otherwise, he said.
That could lead to the union making an unfair labor practice charge, he said.
If that happens, "I'd have to look at the case law and the facts," he said.
Chester previously said that employees who strike because of unfair labor practice allegations can't be displaced by permanent replacement workers, if the original employees make an unconditional offer to return.
An agent from Chester's office is currently investigating a series of unfair labor practice charges filed recently by SEIU Healthcare PA, the union that represents the nurses, alleging the hospital interfered with nurses' right to organize for collective bargaining, that the hospital failed to bargain in good faith and that it violated the nurses' existing collective bargaining agreement by unilaterally changing pharmacy and vision benefits, adding a charge to services that were formerly free.
The hospital has rebutted the charges and called into question the nurses' motives in filing them.
The nurses are holding a news conference today "to voice their concerns about UPMC's plans to fly in expensive, out-of-state temporary replacement staff rather than working with local nurses" to handle the strike, according to a union news release.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.