BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers District 1199 New Mexico have circulated a petition among Los Alamos Medical Center staff in advance of the Dec. 3 resumption of contract negotiations that started in November 2019. The petition, signed by 36 staff members, has been turned in to LAMC CEO John Whiteside.
The union contract with LifePoint, owners of the hospital, expired in January and in March, staff began to seek hazard pay or some kind of pandemic shift differential for workers at LAMC who are providing direct care to COVID-19 patients, however staff claim hospital management has refused to “acknowledge staff who are on the frontlines” but no agreement has been reached.
District 1199 Executive Director Eleanor Chavez told the Los Alamos Reporter Friday that a federal mediator has been involved in the negotiations since May. Chavez said there has been no acknowledgement of the Union’s requests and that all communication with LifePoint has been through their out-of-state lawyer.
The Reporter reached out to LAMC CEO John Whiteside by email Friday without success for a comment on the petition.
“We know COVID isn’t just another infectious disease. This is a pandemic like no other we have experienced in our lifetime. Extreme measures have been taken by our governor in the form of mask mandates, social distancing, shutting down businesses, shutting down schools and mandatory quarantine when exposed or even possibly exposed to COVID,” the petition states. “LifePoint hospitals have adopted measures never seen before such as no visitors to hospital patients, no entry for someone not having business in the hospital, screening everyone that comes into the hospital, cordoning off a special COVID area, and rationing personal protective equipment. These extreme measures are proof that this pandemic is dangerous and a threat to our lives.”
The petition claims that to make matters worse, LAMC administration is trying to limit employee exposure by forcing nurses taking care of COVID patients to assume the duties such as drawing blood, respiratory therapy, and housekeeping – all of which are normally performed by other staff or certified nursing assistants.
“These additional duties are causing an extreme amount of stress and are creating unsafe working conditions for patients and nurses,” the petition says, adding that the extra work being placed on the COVID nurses is “astronomical”. Staff feel the lack of action by LifePoint and LAMC since March has left employees and their families “feeling vulnerable and unappreciated”.
“We have been called heroes by the Los Alamos community, yet the administration of LAMC refuses to recognize our heroic work,” the petition reads.
The staff believes it’s time to recognize those who are on the front lines.
“We believe in fair compensation for going above and beyond out normal job duties is the least this hospital can do. We are asking that any employee providing direct patient care or testing patients for COVID be paid a pandemic shift differential of $10 an hour,” the petition says.
This would include emergency room staff, Med-Surg staff, Intensive Care staff, Obstetrics staff and Surgical Services staff when emergency surgery is performed on a COVID-positive patient.
Chavez said Friday that Holy Cross Hospital in Taos gave staff providing direct care to COVID-19 patients a $4 an hour wage increase. Christus St. Vincent in Santa Fe gave their employees a 2 percent raise across the board, a $550 bonus and an extra $10 an hour for those who work directly with COVID patients.Presbyterian Espanola is giving a $2,000 bonus to its staff in December, Chavez said.
Nurses have indicated their fear of speaking out “in a small town” while working at a hospital owned by a large out-of-town company.
“We have been trying to work things out with LAMC and LifePoint since March on the COVID issue and we have not had a contract in place since last November,” one nurse said. “It is very discouraging.”
Another nurse described going home to her family after a 12-hour shift, scared that she is bringing COVID-19 home to her husband and children, and having to wear a mask in her own home.
“This virus is serious and I don’t understand why the hospital is continuing to do nothing while the number of COVID cases continues to increase,” she said.