An escalating contract dispute between management and nonprofessional workers at the Windemere Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center will now go to federal mediation - and workers at the Island's only nursing home will file a complaint charging unfair labor practices.

Windemere workers voted overwhelmingly last week to stage an informational picket, but the picket has been postponed until after the first mediation session, now set for Sept. 27.

"We thought we had a deal in July and they snookered us," declared Jack Van Osdol, a representative for Hospital Workers Local 767, the union that represents some 40 nonprofessional workers at Windemere, including certified nursing assistants (CNAs), housekeepers, maintenance workers and clerical staff.

"This is deja vu; morale is very low and the trust factor is gone," said Margaret Ditson, a Windemere employee and spokesman for the union.

Martha's Vineyard Hospital chief executive officer Kevin Burchill did not return repeated telephone calls yesterday. Mr. Burchill is a leading spokesman for Windemere in the contract negotiations.

Strained relations between managers and workers at Windemere come at a time when the nursing home is also feeling the strain from soaring financial problems and the sudden departure of director Tom Dresser last month.

Mr. Dresser left his post at Windemere in late August after only eight months on the job. Hospital chief financial officer Tim Walsh is now the acting director at Windemere.

The hospital took over ownership of Windemere late last year, after hospital funds were used to pay off a $2.5 million bond. Last year Windemere lost $567,000 and earned poor marks from auditors for sloppy management practices. Last month, hospital managers reported that Windemere had posted a $260,000 operating loss for the first six months of the year - more than five times the projected loss of $47,000.

"It's the same old story - just new players. Everybody who comes here sinks them deeper in the hole, and now they are carrying it on the backs of the workers," said Mr. Van Osdol.

The union contract expires Sept. 30.

Negotiations between Windemere managers and workers began in July. Mr. Van Osdol said Windemere managers put an offer on the table to up the pay and amplify the benefit package for Windemere workers, bringing their contracts more into parity with nonprofessional workers at the hospital.

"We were informed that the board has decided they don't want to treat Windemere workers as second-class citizens anymore - and they were willing to do a mirror contract to the hospital. I said, great. How much happiness can I stand?" Mr. Van Osdol said.

Mr. Van Osdol said the rationale behind the contract offer was aimed at attracting more trained CNAs back to the nursing home and eliminating the expensive outside labor that managers say has contributed to the wash of red ink at Windemere.

"They said, ‘We need help from the workers and the union and we want to have a cooperative committee to solve the problem with the travelers [outside agency workers].' They said they are spending $335,000 or something like $55 an hour for the travelers," Mr. Van Osdol said.

He said a committee was set up that included union spokesmen and management spokesmen from Windemere.

"Since July they have been tossing ideas around and we had come up with lots of ideas, including suggestions on per diems and a career ladder program to entice more people to come to work there," Mr. Van Osdol said. He said Windemere managers had reportedly documented 55 registered CNAs on the Vineyard who are not working in the home.

He said Windemere workers were also under the clear impression that a final contract was in the offing.

"We were under the impression we had a contract - the whole summer went by because we thought we had a deal and all we had to do was go back in and hammer out these items. We thought we had a contract on differentials, holidays, long-term disability and an enhanced retirement program. What the hospital also got was four per cent across the board for two years," he said.

Then, Mr. Van Osdol said, the entire picture changed with no warning.

"We went into a meeting last week - Kevin Burchill was at the meeting - and suddenly we got the same old song and dance about the numbers: We are losing money, we are in the hole. Suddenly we are informed they are going to renege on us," he said.

Mr. Van Osdol said following the negotiating session a full membership meeting was held and the union members voted 25-1 to hold an informational picket.

"I think it was a mandate," Mr. Van Osdol said of the union vote.

Mr. Van Osdol also said the union has had a difficult time getting accurate information from Windemere managers - he said at one point nursing home managers calculated the cost of a proposal for a summer bonus program based on 80 employees, even though the nursing home currently only has about 40 nonprofessional employees. "For six months I have been asking for a seniority list and they can't even give me that list," he said.

He concluded: "But we had a deal, and the deal was we are not going to be treated as second-class citizens. I could have fallen off the chair when they made it. This means that they have reneged - reneged big-time. They told us in July so we would stay here and keep working, and then they dropped the other shoe. These people aren't going to take it this time. I've got bad vibes here."

"We are second-class citizens - we're always going to be that way and that is the way we feel," said Ms. Ditson.

Contract disputes are not new to Windemere workers, who have lived through one painful financial squeeze after another since a Chapter 7 bankruptcy nearly forced the closure of the nursing home five years ago.

In 1997 a heated contract dispute erupted between workers and managers during the period when Windemere was still in bankruptcy and under the management of a court-appointed management firm. At the time of the bankruptcy many Windemere workers lost vacation pay and health insurance benefits because of sloppy handling of administrative details in connection with the bankruptcy.

Ms. Ditson said she has asked Mr. Van Osdol to file a complaint against the hospital for unfair labor practices.

"We had a deal; the contract was typed up and ready to go. We have no idea where that stuff is now, we have no idea where those proposals are - it's all lost. We are back to ground zero, and it's so frustrating," she said.

"Our main concern is we can't understand why they can't seem to find - and when I say ‘they,' I mean whoever is running Windemere and think it is the Martha's Vineyard Hospital - why they can't find a management company or staff to run Windemere," Ms. Ditson said. She concluded:

"We understand the deficits and the money problems. But we have given back; we have made concessions for seven years and beyond - and we feel it is time for the workers to be brought up to proper living standards."