Monterey County Herald: New union to push back against Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital job cuts

NewsNovember 5, 2010

By Jim Johnson

A newly certified workers union at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital is promising to fight hospital administrators’ plans to eliminate scores of positions. A top hospital official indicated the job cuts could be open to negotiation.

Leighton Woodhouse, spokesman for the National Union of Healthcare Workers, said the union will seek to revisit the hospital’s effort to cut positions during negotiations now that the union is finally the official collective bargaining representative.

The union was officially certified when the state Public Employment Relations Board dismissed the last objections filed by the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers last week, five months after Salinas Valley Memorial workers voted to join NUHW.

The new union represents more than 800 licensed vocational nurses, certified nursing assistants, clerical workers and others at the hospital.

Hospital officials in mid-October announced plans to trim 165 positions as part of ongoing reorganization and cost-cutting efforts, and they offered hundreds of employees represented by three different unions a “voluntary” buyout.

Woodhouse said the union is calling the job cuts “layoffs” because hospital administrators warned them that if not enough workers agreed to accept the buyouts, they might have to terminate the remaining positions.

As of last week’s deadline, which was extended twice, 52 hospital employees, including 30 represented by the new union, accepted the buyout offers.

But Woodhouse said the union, which picketed against the job cuts shortly after they were announced, will seek to reverse those.

Workers “were obviously opposed to these layoffs and wanted a union that would fight for them,” Woodhouse said. “Now, we’ll be in a much stronger position to fight them.”

Salinas Valley CEO Sam Downing said the hospital’s goal of eliminating 165 positions could be subject to negotiation when talks begin as early as next week on a new contract, though hospital spokeswoman Adrienne Laurent said the previous agreements involving buyouts will remain in place.

Downing said hospital administrators simply want to keep costs down and any offer from the unions to help do that will be considered. He said union-represented employees’ benefits will be a point of emphasis from management.

“If we can work with the unions, we can really fine-tune our nursing ratios, our staffing ratios,” Downing said, “and if we adhere to them and we don’t have a lot of overtime, we can stay within budget and that will affect the need for layoffs. I’m looking forward to sitting down with (the new union leadership) and opening our books so they can see what we’re seeing.”

Longtime vocational nurse Marilyn Benson said she’s confident the new union will be a more effective advocate. Benson, 72, said she received the lone buyout offer in her job classification and felt she was being unfairly targeted. She did not accept the offer.

“It’s going to mean a world of difference because employees will have someone to represent their best interests,” Benson said. “Hopefully, there won’t be any more layoffs. You can call them buyouts all you want, but if they tell you your job is eliminated, it makes you think twice.”

According to hospital officials, the most recent buyouts and earlier ones involving non-affiliated employees will help save the hospital about $15 million at a cost of about $5 million. The next step is to continue looking at ways to cut non-labor costs.

Since January of last year, Salinas Valley has eliminated about 228 positions. It now has 1,995 employees.

Hospital officials cite as reasons to trim costs the unknown impact of state and national health care reform, lower Medicare and MediCal reimbursements, a rise in charity care for patients unable to pay their hospital bills, and state-mandated earthquake safety standards.

In June, hospital officials offered buyouts to 135 nonaffiliated employees, including management, and 74 accepted.

This time, they sent more than 900 buyout offers to workers in the hospital’s three unions and to nonaffiliated employees. The hospital is targeting 117 buyouts among the NUHW-represented workers; 41 are earmarked for nurses, one for engineers, and seven for nonaffiliated employees.

Source: Monterey County Herald