Eureka Times-Standard: St. Joseph service workers say ‘yes’ to union; organizers now prep for negotiations

KaiserApril 24, 2014

By Lorna Rodriguez
Eureka-Times Standard
Wednesday, April 23, 2014

More than 200 service employees at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka have voted in favor of joining a union, and will now start preparing for negotiations with the administration.

The employees voted nearly 2-1 on Friday to join the National Union of Healthcare Workers, officials said. According to the vote tallies, 149 employees voted yes, 74 no. Another nine votes were challenged — meaning a person’s eligibility was called into question or a form wasn’t filled out properly.

”I think overall we’re excited,” nursing assistant Allen McCloskey Jr. said. “There’s excitement among the staff about the opportunity to finally have a voice for once, but also we will be able to sit at the table as an equal with the administration and negotiate for a wage increase, cost of living increase.”

In a statement sent to board members and the entire staff, St. Joseph President David O’Brien wrote the administration “will honor our valued employees’ voice and prepare to enter into good faith collective bargaining with the NUHW to reach agreement on a contract.”

”With the vote behind us, it’s time to move forward … together,” O’Brien wrote. “Yes, there were differences of opinion and strongly held views. That is to be expected. So it is especially important to remember and keep our focus on what unites us, and that is our deeply held commitment to provide safe, quality care and compassion to our patients and their families.”

Linda Cook, vice president of human resources for St. Joseph and Redwood Memorial hospitals, said the administration is disappointed by the choice.

”We so much prefer to work directly with our staff and not through an outside third party. However, the vote is over and our employees have made their decision,” Cook wrote in an email to the Times-Standard. “As we often stated during the organizing campaign, we respect our employees’ right to make this decision and will continue to value and support them.”

The support staff, which includes housekeeping, nutritional services, nursing assistants, monitor technicians, unit secretaries and emergency room technicians — among other positions — voted to form a union because they haven’t had a raise in years, McCloskey said.

”This is one of the wealthiest hospitals in the St. Joseph Health Care network, and yet our staff is the lowest paid in the entire system,” he said. “The economics of it simply do not add up.”

Administrators said employees were given a wage increase last year as the result of the hospital ending fiscal year 2013 in the black for the first time in years.

”Prior to July 2013, the last wage increase for these employees was in October of 2010,” Cook wrote. “No increase was given in 2011 or in 2012 due to financial stresses at the hospital.”

New employees earning the same salary as workers who have been employed by the hospital for over 20 years, understaffing in every department, a large workload and last-minute schedule changes are also of concern, said Kerry Sweeney, a nurse who helped the employees organize.

”It just kind of came to a point where people are getting overworked and frustrated, and patients and the community aren’t getting the care they need,” Sweeney said. “If they can pay people a wage they can live on, we’re going to attract quality people who will stay and spend several years at our hospital.”

Cook said the hospital employs as many nursing assistants as possible to make sure caregivers aren’t overworked, but there are times when nursing assistants are reassigned to stay with confused or suicidal patients.

”When this occurs, the nursing assistant must stay exclusively with this patient — taking on the role of a ‘sitter’ — and cannot work with the rest of their team on the unit,” she wrote. “Sometimes another nursing assistant may not be available to fill in for the person who is now acting as a sitter.”

Cook added that when new employees are hired, they are given credit for prior relevant experience.

”This can result in someone hired with prior experience making a higher wage than someone hired with no experience,” she wrote. “We think this is the right and fair thing to do.”

The process to form a union started in May 2013 after Sweeney, a member of the California Nurses Association union that represents 350 nurses at St. Joseph, was approached by several employees who said they were interested in unionizing.

She said the service workers shared several of the concerns the nurses had when they unionized in 2001. In the past 12 years, the nurses have negotiated four contracts and never gone on strike.

Sweeney and the employees began meeting and talking about possibilities. The 280 service employees then petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election to have NUHW, which recently affiliated with CNA, represent them.

Now that the employees have voted in favor of joining the union, the National Labor Board will certify the election results, McCloskey said. After that, they will be able to draft a collective bargaining agreement to set the stage for negotiations.