TURLOCK — Workers at Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock came forward Wednesday to discuss their claims of intimidation and harassment by hospital administration during attempts to organize an employee union.
Some of the workers who came forward at a news conference held by Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers West also gave affidavits to the National Labor Review Board for unfair labor practices complaints filed against the hospital earlier this month. A crowd of about two dozen attended the event.
"They've really scared people, and it's sad. They shouldn't scare people for having an opinion," said Carolyn Bender, who has worked as a respiratory therapist at Emanuel for 27 years. "So many people are put in fear here. They are afraid of losing their jobs for speaking out."
About 400 unlicensed workers at the hospital including aides, kitchen workers, maintenance people, technicians and respiratory therapists were scheduled to vote on whether to unionize earlier this month. The vote was postponed by the federal claims.
Currently, none of the 1,400 employees at the 209-bed hospital are represented by unions.
Emanuel spokeswoman Pennie Rorex said the hospital has respected the rights of employees whether they support or oppose the union. She said administration has not seen the specifics on the claims of unfair labor practices, but stands firm that no intimidation or harassment has occurred.
"All of our verbal and written communications were consistent," she said. "We explained to employees about their rights, our finances and the possible benefits of a Tenet transaction, period."
The hospital has been in talks with Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare Corp. for a possible merger. Tenet owns 49 hospitals, including Doctors Medical Center in Modesto and Doctors Hospital of Manteca.
Echo technician Tamara Pederson, who has been with Emanuel for 23 years, said she was told in a meeting with her director that no union paraphernalia or fliers would be allowed in the department.
"He said he would take anything he saw down. And they were taken down. These are things not in patient care areas, but in women's and men's lounges," Pederson said. "But I chose to speak out because I figure the more vocal I am and the more they see my face, the better off I am."
Pederson was among 10 or so employees who gave affidavits to the labor board.
Another, catheter lab technician Pamela Bayse, said she was approached by a member of the consulting firm hired by the hospital, who flipped open her jacket. "He saw my purple (union) pin and said, 'Oh, you're for the union? After this is over, you can change it for a "no vote" one.' " she said.
Other complaints ranged from not being allowed to hand out pro-union fliers in previously approved employee parking areas to directors calling employees into private meetings to discuss their union support.
Many of the complaints centered on a series of mandatory meetings that employees attended at the end of December and beginning of January, which were run by an East Coast consultant group. Rorex said the group was hired to ensure that the hospital followed labor laws and to correct misleading information distributed by the SEIU-UHW. She said all of the hospital's actions "upheld the letter and spirit of the National Labor Relations Act."
But workers including Mark Eusey, a seven-year employee and technician on the medical telemetry floor, said many felt cowed during the meetings. He said he was called out by name by consultants and told, "We've got to get your head straight."
"It was intimidating, and I felt threatened," he said. "I want this union so I don't have to be afraid of these anti-union campaigners. I am not here to get rich, I am here to take care of your family members and my family members and the community."
Twenty-one-year employee Wendy Pereira, a respiratory therapist, said she also felt officials acted inappropriately during the mandatory meetings. "I feel very uncomfortable about the way things were handled in a couple of the meetings," she said. "It was the way they worded things. Saying, 'Why would Tenet want to negotiate with us as a union?' To me, that's saying Tenet is going to back out."
Others said that hospital officials have claimed Tenet would abandon the merger talks if the union were approved.
Rorex said the hospital is in the due diligence process of its merger talks and hopes to have them wrapped up soon. After that, she said, the transaction would go to the state attorney general for approval.
"We are doing our best to move forward," Rorex said. "It is a lengthy process we were hoping would already be complete. We're hoping (it will be done) in the next several weeks to a month."
Tenet representatives did not return calls for comment.
Union officials said they hope to hear back from the NLRB within the next two months on their claims of unfair labor practices. At that time, a vote could be rescheduled.
Once the specifics of the complaints are given to Emanuel officials by the NLRB, they will have the opportunity to formally respond. Rorex said the hospital intends to "fully cooperate in the process."
"We respect the rights of our employees, whether they support or oppose the union and whether they express their views," Rorex said. "We have not threatened any worker with any discipline because they may have been engaged in activities because of the union."