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Contracts are settled with four of Rice Memorial Hospital's unions

WILLMAR -- New contracts were finalized Wednesday with four of Rice Memorial Hospital's five employee bargaining units.

All four contracts contain similar terms: minimal pay increases but no change in health insurance benefits or paid time off. Each of the new labor agreements is for three years -- 2011, 2012 and 2013.

The contracts were all ratified earlier by union members.

Contract talks have been tense at some U.S. hospitals this past year. Registered nurses in the Twin Cities, who are represented by the Minnesota Nurses Association, staged a walkout last summer and came close to striking before a last-minute agreement was reached.

There were some moments of tension between Rice Hospital and its registered nurses as contract negotiations went into mediation. Fearing they would lose some of their benefits, nurses held a rally on Jan. 21 as the two sides met with a mediator. But by the end of the day, a settlement was reached that the nurses accepted in February.

Overall, labor negotiations with all of the Rice Hospital unions were "very cordial," said Dale Hustedt, the hospital's chief administrative officer.

"It didn't feel that it was a difficult negotiating session this time," he said. "Both parties came to the table with a lot of things they were asking the other party for."

The newly settled contracts are with the Minnesota Nurses Association, the bargaining unit for Rice Hospital's registered nurses; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 105, which represents licensed practical nurses; AFSCME Local 3296, representing maintenance, housekeeping, food service and nursing assistant employees; and International Association of Firefighters Local 3943, which represents emergency medical technicians and paramedics with the Willmar Ambulance Service.

Among the terms of all four agreements: no pay raise this year, a raise of 1 percent in 2012 and a 2 percent raise in 2013.

"That's pretty consistent with the contracts that are being approved across the state in hospitals right now," Hustedt said.

Employees will keep the same benefits.

Each of the agreements also contains some language changes, mainly clarifying certain provisions.

Talks were scheduled to start today with Rice Hospital's fifth bargaining unit, a local of the Teamsters that represents security employees.

It's possible a settlement could be reached soon with this employee group, Hustedt said. "We haven't met yet so it remains to be seen."

Slightly more than half of Rice Hospital's 600-some full-time equivalent employees are covered by labor contracts with the five unions.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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