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Petaluma hospital workers return after strike

Petaluma Valley Hospital workers who staged a one-day strike accused their employer, St. Joseph Health, of retaliation by unfairly locking them out of their jobs when they tried to return to work last week.

St. Joseph said it was forced to hire temporary workers to maintain vital hospital functions during Wednesday’s strike. It said the temporary workers were on a five-day contract, so regular employees were displaced until Monday.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents about 170 PVH employees, said it filed an unfair labor practice grievance for what the union described as a “lockout.”

“It’s a punitive action, and doing so was an attempt to weaken the strike,” said Matt Artz, a spokesman for NUHW. “We think it’s an illegal attack on workers.”

A St. Joseph spokesman said the company needed to hire temporary workers.

“It’s not a lockout, we have a contractual agreement with the replacement worker agency,” said Christian Hill, St. Joseph spokesman. “We communicated to the union that, because of the crisis that a strike can cause, we have an obligation to bring in replacement workers. We have to ensure patients are taken care of.”

The strike stems from an impasse in contract negotiations between the union and the hospital operator. Artz said St. Joseph is proposing to reduce employee healthcare benefits and vacations, and is not offering enough of a salary increase.

“For a hospital that’s doing well, it shouldn’t be cutting benefits,” he said.

Hill said the company proposal calls for a wage increase of approximately 2.5% on average for each year of the three-year contract. He said the PTO, retirement and benefit options St. Joseph is proposing are the same plans NUHW-represented employees in Southern California have accepted in their contract and are consistent with plans offered to other non-bargaining employees.

“We respect the right of the employees to strike,” Hill said. “We’re looking forward to getting back to the negotiating table as soon as possible to work on the much deserved wage increase.”

NUHW represents all hospital staff except physicians, nurses and administrators. Petaluma Valley nurses, represented by Petaluma Staff Nurse Partnership, held an informational picket outside the hospital in August as it bargains with St. Joseph for a new contract.

Vanessa Coe, a coordinator with NUHW, said 85% of union workers at PVH participated in the Wednesday strike.

“It was important we had a good showing,” she said. “Workers said we have to make a stand. From our point of view it was very successful.”

NUHW also criticized St. Joseph for a lack of investment in Petaluma Valley Hospital. It pointed to a mold outbreak that closed several hospital rooms this summer as an example of poor stewardship.

Mold was discovered in 11 rooms in the hospital, including in a labor and delivery room, according to a St. Joseph report on the incident. Hill said the mold was contained and removed, and there has been no identified harm to any patient, caregiver or visitor to the hospital. In several cases, remediation is ongoing, according to the report.

Tyler Kissinger, an organizer with NUHW, said the mold issue is an example of a lack of investment in Petaluma Valley.

“It’s a symptom of years and years of disinvestment and disrepair,” he said. “Until folks see investment in the hospital, I don’t think they will be satisfied.”

St. Joseph has operated the hospital on a 20-year lease with Petaluma Health Care District, the owner. The lease expired in 2017, and the company has stayed on to operate the hospital in the interim while the district negotiates a new lease.

The district originally approached St. Joseph to renew its lease, but talks ended over financial terms and the Catholic healthcare provider’s desire to discontinue women’s reproductive health services. The latest attempt to find a longterm operator was through a new company made up of St. Joseph and Adventist Health, but the state attorney general nixed the combined company.

Ramona Faith, district CEO, said she has reached out to St. Joseph to restart contract talks. The district board is scheduled to discuss the new developments in the lease negotiations at its Dec. 4 meeting.

“There is nothing new,” Faith said. “It’s going to take both parties time to move forward.”

Hill said that St. Joseph is committed to continuing to operate Petaluma Valley Hospital through 2019. He did not say the company’s longterm intentions for the hospital.

“We are looking into a few options for the ongoing operations of PVH but have no conclusive direction at this point,” he said.

(Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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