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Ashland hospital files suit seeking to stop phone calls in labor dispute

The union representing service workers at Ashland's largest employer is using a harassing tactic in a contract dispute, a federal lawsuit alleges.

The union has used an automated telephone system to direct hundreds of calls to the chief executive officer of King's Daughters Medical Center, tying up lines that support calls to emergency services, patient rooms, security and other areas, the lawsuit claims.

Over a two-day period last week, there were 536 calls to hospital CEO Fred Jackson's extension, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit claims the "robo-calls" violate federal law — in part because of the impact on emergency lines — and interfere with the hospital's business operations.

The complaint, filed Dec. 29, seeks an injunction barring the Service Employees International Union District 1199 from continuing to use the system.

"We are exercising our legal rights on behalf of our team members, customers and our organization to prevent disruptive and harassing phone calls," hospital spokeswoman Betsy Donahue said in a statement.

SEIU representatives, however, said the union believes the calls are a legal, legitimate way to get out its message about pay and insurance concessions the hospital has proposed.

The calls don't disrupt hospital operations because they're directed to Jackson's extension, said Joyce Gibson, the SEIU organizer for the hospital.

The union will fight in court to keep using the calls, Gibson said.

The lawsuit is the latest development in a labor dispute that began after the contract between SEIU members and the hospital expired Nov. 30.

SEIU represents 600 employees at the hospital who work in areas such as maintenance, housekeeping and dietary services.

There are about 4,100 employees at the hospital, making it the largest single employer between Lexington and Charleston, W.Va., said Jim Purgerson, president of the Ashland Alliance, the local economic-development agency.

The SEIU members have stayed on the job since the contract expired, but the war of words has expanded.

The union staged a candlelight vigil last week and voted down a contract proposal. Members also plan to picket on Jan. 11 to hand out information, Gibson said.

One sore point in the contract dispute dates to last summer, when King's Daughters laid off about 200 employees, including nearly 90 SEIU members, union representatives said.

The hospital blamed financial problems, saying the amount of care it provides without getting paid has shot up.

But just a few months later, the hospital gave executives bonuses totaling more than $1 million, said SEIU spokesman Anthony Caldwell.

"There's frustration there," said Caldwell.

The hospital also wants several concessions from employees, including a wage freeze and higher insurance premiums and deductibles, Gibson said.

King's Daughters offered the employees a fair contract package, said Donahue, the hospital spokeswoman.

Donahue said hospital representatives are working with mediators and hope to schedule a bargaining session soon.

SEIU is ready to return to the bargaining table, but the two sides are "pretty far apart," Caldwell said.

The union has run advertisements in the Ashland area urging people to call Jackson and tell him to stop putting families' health care at risk.

According to the lawsuit, the union set up a system in December to place automated calls to residents in the area served by King's Daughters.

The message on the calls is "designed to incite the person who answers the telephone against KDMC" and encourages the person to press a key to be connected to Jackson's extension at the hospital, the lawsuit said.

However, the calls come in through the hospital's main lines, causing problems, the lawsuit said.

In addition to an injunction barring the mass calls, the lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

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