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Hospital, union reach deal

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95 percent of workers vote to ratify new contract

By Martin Salazar

More than six years after employees at Alta Vista Regional Hospital first voted to form a union, they finally have a contract with the hospital.

Of the 184 employees covered by the union, 95 percent voted Wednesday to ratify the agreement negotiated by the hospital and the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees-District 1199.

For Amanda Vigil, a registered nurse who has worked at Alta Vista for 10 years, the new contract is a blessing.

“The bottom line is we needed this to happen,” she said, adding that Alta Vista will be a better hospital for it.
“Hospital management will be more accountable to the community, to its employees and to the people we serve,” Vigil said.

The new agreement expires Aug. 31, 2015.

“We value all of our employees and are pleased to have reached a mutually acceptable agreement with our employees covered by this contract,” said Chris Wolf, the hospital’s new chief executive officer. “Throughout negotiations, employees have remained focused on delivering quality patient care, and we thank them for their dedication.”

The union represents everyone from nurses, technicians and pharmacists to clerks, housekeepers and laundry aides. It doesn’t represent management, doctors or security guards.

Under the terms of the agreement, employees represented by the union will get at least a 2 percent raise, beginning with their next pay check. Some employees, including nurses who have worked at the hospital for some time, will see larger raises to begin bringing their pay up to what others in the area are making, according to the union. Employees who work holidays will get time and a half for all of the holiday hours they work.

Fonda Osborn, the Albuquerque-based president of District 99, said that beyond pay, the contract also offers a number of protections for employes, including:

• Seniority rights;
• Protocols for layoffs;
• Grievance procedures for employees, and if the issue is substantial enough it can be taken to an outside arbitrator;
• Just cause protections; management will need to demonstrate just cause in order to fire an employee.
• Equitable overtime opportunities;
• Rotation for holiday and weekend work;
• Employees will continue to get a discount for services they receive at Alta Vista;
• They will have a representative on the hospital’s safety committee.
• And the formation of a labor management committee that employees can go to if they have a problem.

Osborn said the contract gives employees a voice in their work environment.

“In the past, they were somewhat fearful of the administration,” she said. “Now they’re starting to learn that through concerted action, they have certain protections.”

The hospital and union began negotiating the contract in January 2013.

“The negotiations were slow,” Osborn said. “Although we didn’t get everything we wanted, I think they (management representatives) did bargain in good faith... We do want to work hand in hand with this hospital.”

Working side by side with the hospital employees throughout the process has been Yolanda Avila Contreras, a District 1199NM representative.

“I think this is the best thing that can happen to this community,” she told the Optic, adding that employees are excited to work with hospital management to create better working conditions.

In a joint news release issued by the hospital and union Thursday morning, Avila Contreras said, “We are glad to have a contract in place for the employees were represent. Moving forward, this community can continue to count on our members to provide patients with high quality care.”

Vigil said she hopes the agreement will bridge the gap between employees and management and make management more accountable so the hospital as a whole can reach its patient care goals.

“We have some very good employees,” Vigil said. “They’re very dedicated, knowledgable and compassionate.”
She said staff will now be able to speak up about their concerns without fear of retaliation.

“That’s important because we have great staff with great ideas,” she said.

The hospital initially fought attempts to unionize all of its employees into a single bargaining unit. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which in November of 2012 rejected the hospital’s arguments. In fact, the three judge panel for the District of Columbia Circuit wrote a scathing 13-page opinion, accusing the hospital of engaging in stall tactics.

Alta Vista’s parent company is Tennessee-based Community Health Systems Inc.