Temple University Hospital's nurses and allied health professionals are eligible for unemployment compensation during their nearly month-long work stoppage, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Unemployment Compensation said in a decision released late Friday.
And the hospital will have to foot the bill.
The workers are eligible for unemployment compensation, the five-page decision said, because their 28-day work stoppage in April is considered a lock out, not a strike. Under the state law governing Temple and its employees, workers are eligible for unemployment compensation when a company locks out is employees, but not when they strike.
Temple will have to foot the bill because, like many large employers, it is self-insured for unemployment compensation.
Whether a work stoppage is a strike or lock out depends on which side changes the status quo. A strike stems from the workers. A lock out occurs when the employer changes the terms of employment. In Temple's case, the change had to do with a key component in the negotiations - the tuition benefit for dependents. In March 2009, Temple had notified its employees that tuition benefits would be ended at the end of this month.
"We are thrilled that our legal position has been vindicated by this decision," said Bill Cruice, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, the union that represented the 1,500 workers who left their jobs on March 31.
"The most important thing about this ruling is that it shows that Temple was engaged in reckless and aggressive bargaining, effectively locking out nurses and allied professionals instead of coming to the bargaining table and negotiating in good faith," he said.
Temple plans to appeal the decision, Temple hospital's president and chief executive Sandy Gomberg said in a brief statement, noting that Temple disagrees with the determination.
"Because the employer is the party that altered the status quo in this case, the employer is responsible for the work stoppage," the determination said, adding "unilateral modification of an existing collective bargaining agreement by an employer constitutes a lockout under the Law and allows an employee to receive benefits."
Cruice estimates that it will cost the hospital $1.5 million on top of the tens of millions that Temple paid to hire fly in replacement workers from around the county, funding their room and board at Center City hotels. He said that about 800 or 900 of the workers will qualify. Many who were able to work a day or two a week during the work stoppage may have earned too much to qualify for benefits.
The issue centers on tuition benefits for dependents of employees, a component that became key in the bargaining and was the last issue to be resolved to end the work stoppage.
In March 2006, Temple began to offer tuition benefits to the children and spouses of employees, describing it as a policy that could be changed at any time. In October, 2006, the union began representing the workers. In March 2009, the hospital suspended the policy, effective June 30, 2010.
As soon as the policy change was announced, the union immediately protested, writing a letter to management and filing an unfair labor practice with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board alleging that Temple had interfered with its contract by unilaterally changing the contract.
The contract expired in September, 2009, but workers stayed on the job while negotiations continued. In March, 2010, after Temple proffered its last, best deal, the union notified the hospital that its workers would be off the job starting March 31. Meanwhile, though, the union sent a letter to the hospital offering to continue working under the terms of the expired contract, as long as those terms included the tuition reimbursement policy for dependents.
Temple declined, and by declining, set into motion the lock out, according to the five page determination.
When negotiations finally concluded on April 27, the new contract restored the benefit, although it was not as generous. Also, after the union negotiated the benefit for its members, the hospital reinstituted the same benefit for other employees' dependents.