Temple University Hospital's nurses and allied health professionals are eligible for unemployment compensation for their 28-day work stoppage in April, 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, the five-page decision said, because their work stoppage was a lockout, not a strike. Under the state law governing Temple, unemployment compensation is due when a company locks out 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 lockout depends on which side changes the status quo. A strike stems from the workers. A lockout occurs when the employer changes the terms of employment. Temple's change had to do with a key component in negotiations: the tuition benefit for dependents. In March 2009, Temple notified employees that it would halt the benefit 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 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, hospital president and chief executive Sandy Gomberg said in a brief statement.

The decision said that "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 estimated that it would cost the hospital $1.5 million on top of the tens of millions that Temple paid to hire replacement workers from around the county, funding their room and board at Center City hotels. He said about 800 or 900 of the workers would qualify. Many who were able to work a day or two a week during the work stoppage may have earned too much to qualify.

The tuition benefit was the last issue in bargaining to be resolved to end the work stoppage.

In March 2006, Temple began to offer the benefit 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.

As soon as the policy change was announced last year, the union protested, writing a letter to management and filing an unfair-labor-practice complaint with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, alleging that Temple had changed the contract unilaterally.

The contract expired in September, but workers stayed on the job while negotiations continued. In March, after Temple proffered its last, best deal, the union notified the hospital that its workers would be off the job starting March 31. Meanwhile, the union sent the hospital a letter offering to continue working under the terms of the expired contract as long as they included the tuition policy.

Temple declined, setting into motion the lockout, according to the state decision.

When negotiations concluded April 27, the new contract restored the benefit, although it was not as generous. Also, after the union negotiated the benefit, the hospital reinstituted it for other employees' dependents.

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.