SARANAC LAKE-A large group of nurses gathered in front of one of the region's largest health care facilities April 7 to call for fair wages and benefits.
The nurses' union at the Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake says it wants a contract similar to those at other area hospitals, like the CVPH Medical Center in Plattsburgh and the Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone.
But hospital officials counter that they've been negotiating in good faith, and that their contract proposal is, in fact, fair.
More than 40 people lined the highway in front of the Adirondack Medical Center Thursday morning. Some carried signs reading, "Be fair, give us our share," while others urged oncoming cars to sound the horn in support of the nurses union.
Barbara Ryan of Saranac Lake is a nurse with some 30 years of experience in the field. She said a fair contract for the 165 nurses at AMC isn't just about getting their fair share - it's about supporting the local economy.
Ryan said she's reached the top of her pay scale - but other, younger nurses need better wages so they can stay in the Tri-Lakes.
"We need to keep the young nurses here," she said. "I retired last year and I'm coming back as a per diem employee because we don't have enough nurses. The whole point is that these nurses are coming up through the ranks - they deserve the raises in the steps that they're supposed to get. To freeze them, or to stop it, or to say they don't deserve it is completely wrong. They can go to Plattsburgh and get their steps - it's really not that far."
New York State Nurses Association spokesman Mark Genovese said the union simply wants a contract that's on-par with other regional hospitals.
"Management is trying to make comparisons with unions and hospitals and positions in other areas of the nation," he said. "We're talking about registered nurses here, in the eastern part of the North Country - that's the fair market we're talking about.
Pat Valentine of Lake Placid chairs the bargaining unit for the AMC nurses' union. He said that so far, AMC hasn't offered a proposal that mirrors what the nurses are looking for.
"We're seeing a little positive momentum, but we'd like to see more," Valentine said. "There is an agreement that we are looking for and it will be here eventually."
Currently, the union is asking for three percent across the board raises with step increases, which are based on hours of experience.
But hospital officials counter that the union is asking for what amounts to an average 22 percent wage increase over a three-year period.
Hospital spokesman Joe Riccio said that comparing AMC to other health care organizations in the region is inaccurate.
"I think the union realizes that there are regional economic variances between different facilities, like Alice Hyde, CVPH, and Elizabethtown," he said. "What we do is conduct competitive market research and analysis to make sure that our nurses are fairly compensated in a way that is commensurate with education, training, cost of living, and a variety of other factors."
The most recent contract expired late last year and was renewed through March 22. AMC's latest proposal features a 3 percent salary increase in the first year, while eligible nurses would receive an average 3.2 percent step increase in the second and third years of the contract.
That includes a 2 percent cost-of-living raise.
Riccio said that a new step increase of 3 percent has also been added to the top of the wage scale for nurses who've reached the maximum years of service.
The hospital also wants nurses to begin contributing what amounts to about $20 per month to health insurance benefits.
But Mark Genovese of the nurses association said the union opposes increases to health contributions mainly because nurses are exposed to a variety of health-related threats.
Overall, these contract negotiations have been amicable on both sides - in other words, this is not the state of Wisconsin versus public employees.
In fact, Riccio said having nurses outside picketing is actually a good thing.
"We encourage an open dialogue for all of our employees here at AMC, and I think this informational picket is a great example of the nurses engaging in that dialogue, and we respect that," he said.
Both sides realize that more than just equitable pay is at stake here.
Ultimately, union reps and hospital administration agree that a meaningful contract helps hold up a fragile economy and keeps jobs in the North Country.