Union deux

Enloe workers seek representation

ENLOE ANGST The nonprofit hospital’s administrators have a history of resisting union efforts.

ENLOE ANGST The nonprofit hospital’s administrators have a history of resisting union efforts.

Photo By Tom Angel

Union label: Enloe employees say they earlier rejected efforts by a steelworkers’ union to organize workers there because its representatives were too controlling and employees favor a locally driven effort.

Worried about pay rates, rising insurance costs, outsourcing of departments and patient care, a group of workers at Enloe Medical Center is in the early stages of gathering signatures to form a union.

If successful, the estimated 1,100 employees—ranging from nurses’ assistants to lab technicians—would be represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 250, the nation’s largest healthcare union, with 1.5 million members and an affiliation with the AFL-CIO.

“The whole organization process has really come from the employees,” said John Fuller, a 15-year Enloe employee who works in radiology. “It’s really grass-roots.”

Pat Alvarez of Oakland-based SEIU 250 has set up a temporary office in Chico and said that, while hundreds of signatures have been gathered, the group will not file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board until it has a “supermajority” of the potential bargaining unit members.

In 2000, Enloe administration aggressively fought registered nurses’ ultimately successful efforts to unionize under the California Nurses’ Association, going so far as to bring a high-dollar union busting firm to town.

Throughout that effort, Enloe officials insisted that a third party would only get in the way of a good relationship with employees. Three workers who spoke with the News & Review this week said they found that assertion ironic when, last July, Enloe decided to subcontract out its food, housekeeping and several other services to private firms to save money.

Those subcontracted employees ended up with lesser benefits and job security, Fuller said, and, “everyone else is equally concerned that it’s going to happen to them.”

Carrie Summers, who works in Central Distribution, said the staff is overworked and morale is rock-bottom. “We are totally vulnerable at this point,” said Summers, who has been at Enloe for five years. “This is the only way that we can have any security in our jobs.”

The efforts boiled to the forefront on Nov. 17, when workers hand-delivered a letter to Chief Operating Officer Dan Neumeister and Vice President of Nursing Jan Ellis, voicing concerns that arose after meetings the prior week that left some attendees fearing massive cuts or layoffs were on the horizon.

The letter didn’t mention the union but asked that administrators clarify any planned cuts of support staff. “We deserve to know what your plans are for our jobs and the care of our patients,” the letter read.

Neumeister and Ellis responded Nov. 20 to most of the letters’ 43 signatories with a letter of their own, assuring the employees that they misunderstood the effects of new, state-set nursing ratios that will take effect on Jan. 1. (The letter-writers had feared Enloe would use the mandates as an excuse to cut jobs, reduce work hours or otherwise pare down staff.)

The letter stated that, while the new ratios are complex, no layoffs are planned.

Enloe spokesperson Ann Prater said the administration hasn’t heard much about the efforts to organize and thus has little to say about it. “Our policy is, it’s our employees’ choice,” she said, but, “our goal is always to work with [employees] directly.”

Prater also mentioned that Enloe is currently advertising for certified nurses’ assistants, so it’s illogical to think that the hospital is in cut mode.

Meanwhile, said Becky Short, an 11-year employee and unit secretary, “people are leaving. They’re traveling to Sacramento, Redding and Yuba City” for better pay and working conditions.

The employees who met with the News & Review said they don’t want to do anything that would hurt Enloe’s reputation. “We hope to make Enloe the preferred employer,” Summers said.

If the union efforts are successful, SEIU would work toward protections against subcontracting and for better health coverage and more input into workload and other issues. Employees would pay 2 percent of their gross earnings in dues.

Fuller said he doesn’t understand why Enloe, a nonprofit, appears so dead-set against unions, seemingly to its own detriment. "It’s like living with an alcoholic parent."