Ontario hospital nurses’ union files federal complaint over contract issues

Shelves are stocked with supplies in the emergency department at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center . The department sees about 20,000 patients a year. (The Enterprise/file)

ONTARIO – The union that represents nurses at Ontario’s hospital recently filed a federal complaint asserting the corporation that owns the medical center acted illegally regarding a labor contract. The union seeks nearly $4,000 in back pay for each Ontario nurse.

The Oregon Nurses Association filed the complaint with the National Labor Relations Board in April. The complaint asserts Trinity Health refused to recognize the union, bargained in bad faith and declined to bargain with the employee organization. According to the union, it represents about 84 nurses at the Ontario hospital.

“We were told by the hospital that nurses did not want to be represented by ONA anymore. So basically, the hospital told us they’ve torn up the contract. That is illegal. The contract is legally binding,” said Myrna Jensen, communications specialist for the association.

The union also asserts Trinity Health, a not-for-profit Catholic health system operating more than 90 hospitals in 22 states, initiated other illegal acts including retaliation and discrimination against union leaders.

In a prepared statement, Trinity Health said last week that it received a petition “signed by the majority of nurses saying that they no longer wanted to be represented by the Oregon Nurses Association.”

“As the law provides, we withdrew recognition from the ONA, and look forward to moving forward with a direct relationship with our colleagues,” the statement said.

The health organization also said it is confident “that we followed the law in respecting the wishes of our nurses, and look forward to responding to the union’s charge in the appropriate forum.”

“Unfortunately, the ONA has decided to not respect the wishes of the majority of our nurses, and instead has filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board,” Trinity Health said in its statement.

Jensen said the health system is responsible for a series of other actions against the union. For example, said Jensen, the health system denied union representatives access to nurses at the hospital.

“We are also allowed by the contract for literature from the union in the break room and they have tossed that out. They have threatened discipline to employees for talking about being part of the union and that is a protected activity,” said Jensen.

Jensen also asserted Trinity Health failed to honor contract provisions related to equal pay and bonuses.

“With Covid, nurses in Nampa and Boise got bonuses and pay increases because of staffing issues but the nurses in Ontario did not,” said Jensen.

The contract, said Jensen, stipulates “nurses in Ontario will be paid the same as nurses in Boise and Nampa.”

Trinity Health, said Jensen, responded by pointing out it can’t deliver the bonuses and pay increases because “the contract says we can’t without bargaining.”

“So that is what it really comes down to. Our contract is not being held up. The nurses are not getting what they deserve. We want the hospital to make the nurses whole, to basically pay back wages that are owed,” said Jensen.

Jensen said the Ontario nurses were supposed to get a pay boost in August 2021 but did not. Now, she said, Trinity Health owes each nurse about $3,800 in back pay.

“They (Trinity Health) have just flat out refused to talk to us,” said Jensen.

Yet at least one nurse at the hospital said the point of contention is with the union, and not Trinity Health.

Madison Hartung, an emergency room nurse who has worked at the facility for four years, said a majority of nurses are “super fed up with the union.”

Hartung said during the Covid pandemic, nurses contacted the union regarding help in obtaining extra pay but never received a response.

Hartung also said many nurses do not support the organization’s political endorsements.

Each nurse, she said, pays $100 a month in dues to the union but the perception by many is the money isn’t a good investment. Hartung said most nurses are no longer paying union dues.

“So, a couple of us nurses went around, we were talking to other nurses, we said, let’s get a petition together and see how many are fed up. We had a large majority said they don’t want to support the union anymore,” said Hartung.

Hartung said “a majority of nurses” presented a proposal to Trinity Health to leave the union.

“We’d rather have a direct relationship with management,” said Hartung. “They’ve done nothing for us. I am super frustrated they keep pushing the issue when they’ve lost majority support. I don’t think the union knows what is going on,” said Hartung.

Jensen said those complaints are “incorrect or overstated.”

“For example, it is crucial to note that St. Alphonsus management canceled a contractually obligated conference space for ONA meetings with nurse members and also threatened ONA staff with trespassing just before a scheduled membership meeting,” said Jensen.

Jensen said those actions were “clearly intended to prevent ONA staff from meeting with nurses and to continue the false narrative that ONA wasn’t showing up for our members.”

“ONA recognizes that there have been some challenges in our work with the incredible member nurses at St. Alphonsus in the past. But ONA has taken a number of steps to improve that relationship,” said Jensen.

One of those steps, said Jensen, was to bring in new and additional union staff.

“These new staff members are working hard to meet with every single nurse in the unit to discuss how we can best meet their individual needs and the needs of the community,” said Jensen.

Jensen said while Trinity Health said the majority of nurses no longer seek union representation, the union has no proof to support the company’s assertion.

“Wild claims and factual inaccuracies do nothing to help support the nurses. A union contract will,” said Jensen.

Complaints to the National Labor Relations Board typically are resolved between seven to 14 weeks after they are filed. The current union contract at the Ontario hospital expires June 30.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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