A union representing nurses and hospital technicians is alleging Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe has not met staffing levels negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement and fired a longtime nurse for being outspoken on the issue.
The National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees Local 1199 recently filed a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board over the firing of Diane Spencer, a nurse who had worked at the hospital since 1997. Attorney Shane Youtz, who represents the union, said that the hospital fired Spencer on April 5 over a patient complaint that he called “a routine variety.”
Youtz said HIPAA rules prevent him from divulging into details about the complaint but that it “involved absolutely no harm or no potential harm to the patient.”
The firing came two hours after Spencer finished meeting with the hospital’s new chief nursing officer. At the meeting, Youtz said Spencer expressed concerns about the hospital’s staffing levels.
“She basically said, ‘Here’s the deal: Staffing is horrible. The hospital has to do something about it,'” Youtz told New Mexico Political Report in an interview Friday afternoon.
The union’s complaint to NLRB alleges that Spencer’s firing was actually over her activism on the staffing issue. Spencer, the vice president of Local 1199, is outspoken about safe staffing levels, testifying to the state Legislature about the issue and representing the union at the bargaining table over it.
“She’s at the pointy end of the spear on this issue, and she’s the one they fired,” Youtz said.
In a prepared statement issued to media outlets Friday afternoon, St. Vincent’s spokesman Arturo Delgado wouldn’t comment “on personnel matters” based “out of respect for our current and former employee’s privacy.”
“We have a policy of progressive disciplinary action that is followed for our employee discipline and termination for cause,” Delgado’s statement said. “We follow that policy. Further, we have always followed a policy of non-discrimination, union members or not.”
The union also alleges that the hospital hasn’t been following staffing levels negotiated and agreed on by both sides last year. The bargaining agreement says the hospital will staff nurses at levels equal to 40 percent of similarly sized hospitals.
“To say they’re not meeting it is probably charitable,” Youtz said. “It seems to me they’re not trying to meet it.”
Youtz said between January and February, the hospital only staffed one shift that met the negotiated levels. Nurses are staffed for two 12-hour shifts each day.
“January and February were both times of exceptionally high census numbers for the hospital, due to flu and other related illnesses,” Delgado said. “We underestimated the high census needs and immediately enhanced recruitment efforts.”
Delgado claims that the hospital has since hired 35 new nurses and expects to hire more soon.
“Per the negotiated contracts, we remain committed to staffing at the 40th percentile and are continually working to achieve that level using core staff, agency nurses when necessary, and a mix of part time and per diem nurses,” Delgado said. “If, for whatever reason, we fall short of that target, as committed and agreed to in the contract, we make a contribution to the nurse education fund that benefits our workforce.”
As for Spencer, Youtz said the union is requesting arbitration over her firing. So far, he said the hospital appears to be refusing to enter arbitration.
The union also sent a letter to Santa Fe’s mayor and city council Friday requesting to meet with them and share their concerns.