In the early months of the pandemic, the public offered doctors, nurses and other medical providers a taste of appreciation for their work as hospitals swelled with COVID-19 patients. Over a year later that gratitude has yet to translate into tangible benefits for many health care providers.
But for another group of essential workers at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center—those working in service and maintenance areas of the hospital system—financial benefits have arrived.
At the end of July, the medical center and hospital workers’ union agreed to a new three-year contract for service and maintenance employees, increasing the minimum wage and differential benefits and clarifying the discipline article to address bullying, according to a union organizer.
Neither hospital officials nor the union would share the contract with SFR.
The renewed contract—which begins Oct. 1—comes in response to the challenges many other companies face: employee shortages and retention concerns.
“What we are experiencing is very similar to all businesses in Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico,” Christus President and CEO Lillian Montoya writes to SFR. “This includes recruiting and retaining food and nutrition staff, environmental services staff and nursing assistants.”
James Ortiz, president of District 1199NM, the local chapter of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, confirms the pandemic put immense pressure on hiring and maintaining a sufficient workforce. He also knows the value of his union members’ efforts: “We have a great working relationship with the hospital, so they know these are hard jobs.”
Union leaders say the current contract ends Sept. 30. The new agreement, Ortiz says, was quickly ratified by the union after negotiations in July.
The agreement settled on both immediate and future benefits for hospital workers. In addition to securing the $15.25 minimum wage for new employees, differential pay increases will come in October of 2022. Employees receive differential pay when working evening, night or weekend shifts. According to union leadership, evening workers will receive an additional $2 per hour, night workers will earn $4 more, and employees working on weekends will receive $3 extra.
Union organizer Yolanda Ulmer says negotiations focused on immediate support while also attracting new workers. “We felt the employees needed the money. [With] negotiations you only have so much to go with, so we felt that the employees needed the wages now,” says Ulmer, adding that the wage increase will make hospital jobs more attractive to new hires.
In April 2020, Christus put 300 employees on “temporary low volume leave” for 90 days in response to declining patient numbers. The medical center is the third largest employer in the Santa Fe area, after the state and Los Alamos National Laboratory, with 2,300 employees.
Roughly 30% of those employees are represented by District 1199NM. The union represents 307 nurses, 108 licensed techs and 279 service and maintenance workers under three separate contracts.
Ortiz explains that employees working in a COVID unit or in rooms where a patient tested positive receive an additional $10 per hour. The union and the hospital signed a memorandum of understanding outlining the benefit in February of 2020.
“I believe we were the first hospital that offered a COVID bonus to our employees in New Mexico,” Ulmer tells SFR.
Union leadership echoes the hospital administration’s need for attracting and retaining workers.
“For the service workers, it’s been low. We’re really hurting right now,” Ortiz tells SFR. “That’s where we, in the hospital, felt that bringing up the wages would help in recruiting and retaining employees.”
The challenges of maintaining a sufficient service work force in the hospitals led Ortiz and his union colleagues to research wages in Santa Fe and elsewhere in New Mexico. “We wanted to beat everybody else so we can get people—so we can attract people to the positions,” he says.
Both the union and the medical center hope the increase in base pay will draw in new workers to help alleviate the burden Ortiz says has been placed on service and maintenance employees over the last year and a half. Montoya also hopes to retain employees, tracking them into other positions in the medical group.
“This was a limited opener, and we chose to focus primarily on wages to ensure they remain competitive and that we can continue to recruit and retain our health care teams,” Montoya writes to SFR, noting that “these positions are actually a great gateway to other careers” with Christus.