Labor pangs

Enloe employees will vote on whether to unionize lowest-paying jobs

UNION DO <br>From left, employees Ronald Taylor, Kyle Harp and James Harro hope their efforts to unionize are successful. They say the workers approached the SEIU, not the other way around, and passed up other unions that would have taken a heavy-handed approach to representation.

From left, employees Ronald Taylor, Kyle Harp and James Harro hope their efforts to unionize are successful. They say the workers approached the SEIU, not the other way around, and passed up other unions that would have taken a heavy-handed approach to representation.

Photo By Tom Angel

Who’s in? The SEIU anticipates the employees eligible to vote for representation could exceed the 1,000 mark and include: licensed vocational nurses, certified nurse assistants, lab assistants, respiratory therapists, radiological technologists, patient accounting employees, dietary workers and more.

Chico’s nonprofit health care giant, Enloe Medical Center, is facing another union battle. But this time, the hospital is not bringing out the big guns.

On Feb. 18, employees filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB), which, after a hearing, will set an election date—probably by April 1. If successful, workers ranging from lab assistants to dietary workers would be represented by Service Employees International Union 250, the largest health care union in the West.

The employees who want to unionize say it’s about their job security, pay and benefits but mostly about patient care.

James Harro, a surgical technician and six-year Enloe employee, said workers don’t feel like their concerns are being heard. If the union is voted in, he said, “we’ll have a voice. These sorts of problems will be on top of the table with management.”

But Enloe officials said a union would hurt, not help, employer-employee relations.

Pam Sime, who is in charge of Enloe’s human relations, said, “We believe that we do best and serve our community best when we are all working together. … We consider [a union] to be an extra layer, and it’s not a layer that we need.”

Enloe poured a lot of money (it won’t reveal how much) into fighting the successful effort of nurses to unionize under the California Nurses Association in 2000. This time, said Sime, the hospital won’t be hiring a union-busting firm like the Burke Group and will organize any anti-union meetings itself.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, this is their decision,” said Ann Prater, Enloe’s spokesperson.

Union supporters are confident the vote will come down in their favor.

“They’re trying to tell us the union is a third-party,” said Kyle Harp, who has been with Enloe for 12 years and works in cardiology diagnostics. “But the union is us.”

A group of anti-union employees is beginning to mobilize, said Patti Clifford, who has worked in the hospital’s accounting department for five years. She said the people she works with are pleased with their pay and benefits and how the hospital treats them. They’d also resent having to put 2 percent of their paychecks in union dues toward something they don’t believe in.

“I’m happy with my job and I’m happy with Enloe, and I feel very free to walk in and visit with the administration if I have a program,” she said. “I can represent myself better than anyone else.

“The union isn’t a savior,” she added. “The union can’t give us raises. There’s a lot of misinformation going around. … I hope that everyone makes an informed decision.”

But some employees also fear that more departments will be “outsourced” to private corporations, as food services and environmental resources (housekeeping) were last summer.

“We were basically sold to a large corporation,” assessed Jeremiah Jennings, who has been a nutritional worker at Enloe for three and one-half years. He said his coworkers, who start at about $8 an hour, had raises postponed, can barely afford the premiums on their health insurance and are now at-will employees able to be let go at any time for no reason.

The outsourcing was the last straw for Ronald Taylor, who works as a respiratory therapist and, after 11 years at Enloe, was on the fence about the union issue. “They picked on the people who were least likely to fight back,” he said.

Sime said these “partnerships” don’t get in the way. “Their managers are part of our management team,” she said. “They provide us with experience and cost efficiencies.”

Also, on Feb. 18, more than 20 workers marched into Chief Operating Officer Dan Neumeister’s office and presented him with a petition and a letter requesting that Enloe allow a fair election, with minimal interference and use of money.

Taylor said employees are becoming excited by the union effort’s momentum. “They’re not so afraid and intimidated by management.”

Both Taylor and Harp said they have been told by supervisors not to talk about the union.

Sime said there are some rules as to when and where the union efforts can be discussed, and they will be enforced. “We absolutely have said from the very beginning [that] as long as everyone is acting within the law we completely support their choices,” she said. But the handing out of materials and talking about the union must be done on lunches and breaks and not in patient-care areas.

All the pro-union employees the News & Review spoke with said they love Enloe and bring their own families there for treatment; they just don’t like the way the administration’s philosophy has shifted in recent years.

“We want a family-oriented hospital back,” Taylor said. “I want a feeling of unity back.”

Clifford, the accounting office worker who opposes the union, said that whatever happens, "I hope that it doesn’t divide people. That’s the sad part about when a union moves in."