Nurses charge Porter Medical Center with labor law violations
MIDDLEBURY — A nurses union and management at Porter Medical Center are squaring off over a claim that hospital administrators aren’t following federal labor laws by sanctioning a nurse for perceived union activity and failing to follow the details of a contract.
In this, the first major dispute since the two-year-old Porter Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, AFT, and the hospital signed their first union contract, communication between the parties has been minimal.
“We haven’t heard from Porter,” Alice Leo, RN and president of the Porter union, said late on Tuesday.
“We have not yet seen these charges, as the union has chosen not to share them with us; rather they chose to issue a press release, which is disappointing,” Porter Vice President of Development and Public Relations Ron Hallman said in a statement on Wednesday morning. He said the hospital did not violate the law.
In late 2013 Porter Medical Center nurses voted to unionize the more than 140 full- and part-time nurses who work at Porter Hospital, Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, and the network of around a dozen physicians’ offices affiliated with Porter Medical Center. Nurses had cited concern over staffing levels and a desire to become more involved in Porter Medical Center operations, as well workplace issues like continuing education, professional advancement, comprehensive orientation for new nurses and recruitment/retention of personnel.
The medical center and the union agreed to terms of their first contract in late December 2014.
On Monday, the union sent out a press release saying it had filed 11 unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which they said cited “numerous violations of the law.” Leo explained that her union had filed “grievances” against Porter for what it saw as smaller infractions, but it took the more meaningful step of filing the unfair labor practices charges because it believed Porter officials were actually breaking the law in terms of how union members must be treated.
Although the union did not respond to requests from the Independent to see the charges, Leo, who has been a nurse at Porter for 23 years, said the charges generally fell into three areas. First, she said, Porter violated its duty to bargain in good faith. She said officials unilaterally terminated discussion on a clinical advancement program even though the contract said they would negotiate on the future of the program.
“In the very first meeting they informed us there would be no negotiation on it,” Leo said.
She explained that the clinical advancement program is more than continuing education; it promotes excellence in nursing and might have the nurses go out into the community to educate the public on health issues. The hospital had such a program until 2009; Leo recalled that it was ended as a cost-saving measure.
Second, she said, hospital officials cancelled a scheduled negotiating session with only two hours’ notice.
The third charge is that the three nurses were not allowed to wear union pins, even though the law says union members are allowed to wear such insignia, according to Leo. She said the pins prominently displayed the word “respect,” and that a manager told three nurses to take them off. Two of the nurses took off their pins when told to the first time. One nurse told the manager that it was within her rights to wear the pin and finally took it off after being told a third time, according to Leo.
“They said she was insubordinate,” Leo said, adding that the nurse was told she was suspended but not told the duration of the suspension.
She said other nurses said this employee is a “really good nurse,” and some of her colleagues went to a Porter official to advocate for her reinstatement, which came after one day. Leo declined to name the nurse who was suspended.
Hallman declined to answer questions beyond the emailed statement.
BENEFITS FOR PART-TIMERS
The complaints to federal labor officials come as some Porter employees fear the financial screws are being tightened at the community hospital. Leo said they know of a plan to discontinue health care benefits to an increasing number of part-time Porter employees. She said that currently, employees who work fewer than 20 hours per week do not get health benefits, but that the administration is planning to not give health benefits unless employees work at least 30 hours per week.
Leo said that there are employees with families who will be hurt by this decision, noting the irony that a business that provides health care won’t offer it to all its employees.
“Porter is a health care facility, we take care of people; we need to take care of our people,” Leo said. “Health insurance is a basic right.”
Nurses have sponsored a petition drive asking Porter to reinstate the health benefit to part-time employees. Leo said that in six days they got more than 700 signatures on the petition, with most of the signers living in Addison County.
Like all health care providers, Porter is under financial pressure as the health care industry evolves.
In August, Porter asked regulators to approve a budget that represents a 3.1-percent increase in spending that among other things reflects a bigger commitment in helping opiate addicts, an ongoing investment in health care technology, and the refinancing of the organization’s debt at a more favorable rate. The medical center requested a net revenue increase of 3.3 percent, which is well within the state regulator’s 3.6-percent guideline for Vermont hospitals.
Leo acknowledged that the nurses union is still learning about the fiscal constraints that the hospital operates under.
“There are things about finance that we don’t understand,” she said.
Porter also saw a new president take the helm since the contract was signed. Lynn Boggs, who started her career as a nurse, came on in early July.
“She said right from the beginning the most important thing is patient-centered care, and we agree with that,” Leo said. “She has also told us that the bottom line is important.”
A spokesperson for the NLRB did not reply by deadline to a request for information on the Porter nurses’ complaint. An explanation on the NLRB website of the process of investigating unfair labor practices complaints shows many steps that could end in the charges being dismissed to an injunction or a remedial order. Typical cases on the site appear to last at least a few months, and some longer.
Asked if the complaints to the NLRB could be attributed in part to the learning process, Leo did not deny that it is new to her.
“All of us are learning — the nurses and management,” she said.
“However, these unfair labor practices are incredibly disrespectful to the nurses unions … I feel we are abiding by the contract and we are asking them to abide by the contract and labor law.
“We filed unfair labor practices complaints because the law was broken,” she added. “That’s not a learning process, that’s the law.”
Hallman said Porter will comply with the process laid out in labor law.
“There is an established, legally required and mutually agreed upon process in our contract with the union for addressing and resolving issues between the union and our organization which we will follow,” he said in his statement. “We do not believe we have violated the law and welcome review by the NLRB.”
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