Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center retaliated against a top union nurse and has been breaking its agreement on nurse staffing levels, officials with the New Mexico chapter of National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees alleged in a press conference outside City Hall on Friday.
Tears welled up in Diane Spencer's eyes as union officials told reporters that she's one of the best nurses the hospital and that her termination had been a result of Spencer's union-related activities, including keeping track of staffing levels of the nurses who work at the hospital.
"What we will not tolerate is a targeted attack on our members," said District 1199 President Lorie MacIver.
Hospital officials say in a prepared statement that they "will not comment on personnel matters" but add that "we have always followed a policy of non-discrimination, union members or not."
"And, we have consistently demonstrated our commitment to following that policy," reads the statement. "Over the years, in our long term relationship with 1199, there has not been a pattern of discrimination against employees because of their union affiliation."
Shane Youtz, the union's attorney, says hospital administrators told Spencer—who received "extremely good" evaluations during her tenure there—that she would be under investigation two hours after an April 5 meeting between Spencer and the chief nursing officer about staffing levels at Christus St. Vincent. The number of staff on duty during hospital shifts had been the major point of contention between the two parties last year during contract negotiations that featured a walkout by union nurses.
Union officials say they can't go into details about the incident that led to Spencer's termination due to federal privacy laws, but Youtz said there was no adverse medical outcome involved to the patient and characterized the incident that triggered her termination as a "routine" occurrence at the hospital that doesn't justify firing Spencer, "one of "Christus' best nurses."
"Many people knew she was going to be fired," said Youtz, who added that the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board while, separately, an arbitrator investigates the issue.
During contract negotiations, the union and the hospital agreed that staffing levels for nurses would remain at the 40th percentile, a calculation that means about 60 percent of peer-hospitals have more robust nursing staffing levels than that of Christus St. Vincent.
But the union alleges that, since the Jan. 1 contract, the hospital has only staffed nurses at the 40th percentile for roughly one day and that the hospital has been choosing to pay fines instead of increasing staffing levels. (Hospital administrators call the payments contributions to a fund for nurse education).
Hospital administrators respond in the statement by citing New Mexico Hospital Association data they say shows it has higher nurse staffing levels than most large hospitals in the Land of Enchantment and that the hospital experienced "exceptionally high census numbers for the hospital, due to flu and other related illnesses."
"We underestimated the high census needs and immediately enhanced recruitment efforts," they say, which includes the hiring of 35 registered nurses since March.
"The funding portion of the agreement is complex as it uses a tracking mechanism to check staffing on a combined 31 nurse and tech units each day," reads the statement. "Some are checked twice daily for a total of 42 unit checkpoints a day. If we fall short on staffing, even on 1 out of 42 checkpoints each day, the agreement calls for a contribution to the education fund."
In a letter the union delivered to City Hall officials, union officials say that hospital administrators "failed to make any serious effort to meet their commitments as to staffing as they promised us and you last October."
The letter alleges the hospital lost 300 nurses in the last three years, "most of whom have left because of poor staffing," and that the hospital has been relying on traveling nurses from out of state whom the hospital ships in for 13-week contracts.