A labor contract covering an estimated 380 registered nurses and certified registered nurse anesthetists at Indiana Regional Medical Center expired at midnight today, but the nurses were expected to continue working under the same terms for the time being.

Contract talks between IRMC and the bargaining unit IRNA, the Indiana Registered Nurses Association, began in August.

Negotiators have met about a dozen times — some sessions began in the afternoon and went on beyond midnight — and the hospital and nurses still were not near a deal following the last session Tuesday, according to Annie Briscoe, a spokeswoman for the nurses’ union, HealthCare-PSEA, and Mark Richards, chief growth officer at IRMC.

Each said an agreement isn’t expected soon.

“There’s still a gap,” Richards said.

“IRMC and the union have scheduled bargaining dates into December,” Briscoe said.

Looming over the sides as their talks go on is the chance of a strike by IRNA. Unhappy with the hospital negotiators’ approach to the contract talks so far, the union took the first step of the process: Members voted Oct. 23 to allow their local officers to declare a strike “at a time when they feel it is necessary,” according to a union statement.

Both of the representatives declined to comment on the proposals and counterproposals that the administration and union have put on the table — “we’re still trying to get to a deal, so I don’t want to negotiate through the newspaper,” Richards said — but each said that the sides are relying on wages, health care and working conditions provided elsewhere in the health care industry for making their case.

 “I can’t address the hospital’s proposals, but we do consider different averages and we also consider different conditions in other hospitals as well,” Briscoe said.

“IRMC is a bit unique in that it maintains a regional hospital status. Like UPMC is kind of the giant in the western Pennsylvania area, you always hear IRMC touting their status as a local regional hospital. But we do look at a lot of different data and experience comparisons as well.”

“Certainly we’ve done benchmarks and comparisons, and clearly we want to remain competitive in the marketplace and continue to be a ‘Best Place to Work,’” Richards said. “We’ve looked at other hospitals both regionally and statewide.”

“They are still negotiating over wages, they’re negotiating over health care. Of course those are the two biggest issues,” Briscoe said. “As nurses and union members, those are the top two priorities. But I can’t speak to what they are proposing now compared to what they currently have.”

Even the length of the proposed contract isn’t being disclosed.

Briscoe, who is not a part of the negotiations, said she believes there are no tentative agreements on any of the various provisions within the contract.

IRNA President Kathy Wolfe did not return voice mail and text messages requesting comment.

The slow process of agreeing on new contract terms isn’t new for IRMC and IRNA.

An earlier contract expired in October 2015 and the nurses remained on the job under a series of contract extensions through 2016. Friction between the sides grew when the administration declared the contract talks at an impasse and unilaterally enacted a new health insurance plan.

In response, IRNA filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and the union leaders, with rank-and-file support, later announced the nurses would conduct a one-day strike on Dec. 23, 2016.

The strike was averted when the negotiators settled on contract terms that provided an immediate 4 percent pay raise. The contract was written up as a two-year agreement retroactive to Nov. 1, 2016, and provided a 1.5 percent pay increase for the second year.

In response to the nurses’ vote last week to keep a strike among the union’s options, Richards said IRMC has a “continuity plan” ready to ensure uninterrupted high-quality patient care.

The plan won’t involve asking doctors or other hospital employees to handle any of the nurses’ duties but may call for hiring other registered nurses to fill in.

“We have to be prepared to continue to run the hospital,” Richards said. “We would take whatever measures are necessary to keep the doors open and continue to take care of the folks that need us.

“At this point we don’t believe” that the hospital would curtail any programs or services if the nurses call a strike, Richards said.

A strike probably would cost the hospital some money, he said.

“It would depend on the direction we chose. We could see fewer patients, potentially,” he said. “Hiring replacement workers would be an expense.”

In a news release announcing the strike authorization last week, IRNA representatives said the hospital didn’t share the union’s view of the contract talks.

“Our approach for bargaining is to enter with open minds and an eagerness to reach an agreement that helps our nurses and hospital to move forward,” according to the news release. “We hope that the hospital shares our willingness to settle, but they’ve unfortunately had a ‘take it or leave it’ approach … (that) shows they’re not ready to seriously bargain with us.”

Richards said IRMC wants to treat the nurses fairly.

“The one thing that always gets missed is that we believe in our nurses,” Richards said. “This isn’t us vs. them. We are just trying to get an equitable deal for both sides.”

Staff writer/Web Editor, The Indiana (Pa.) Gazette

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the Indiana Area and Homer-Center school boards and White Township, Center Township, Homer City and Burrell Township, and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.