Members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 9413 union gathered outside of Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center on Friday morning. They called the hospital’s parent company greedy and unaccountable.
They held picket signs and chanted, “When working families are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.” Their masks were emblazoned with a coiled snake and the words, “Will strike if provoked.”
“It’s the audacity and the pure greed and the shamelessness of this employer that’s on full display here,” said Robert Longer, who works for the hospital’s employee union. “You know it’s been 10 hard months at the bargaining table with the employer. We started negotiations in February.”
CWA represents more than 700 workers at the hospital who are not nurses, doctors or administrators. Its members include custodians, food service workers, technicians in various departments and certified nursing assistants (CNAs)—and, for the last 10 months, they said they have struggled to arrive at agreements with the hospital’s management concerning their health care benefits and wages.
Union members say the hospital’s owner—Prime Healthcare Services, which purchased the hospital in 2012—has been trying to alter health coverage while also proposing to raise the employees’ co-pays for doctor’s visits and medication.
Longer is the chief bargainer for the workers current contract negotiations with the hospital.
Longer said that just before the start of negotiations for the new contract, Prime Healthcare Services changed employee insurance plans and rates despite the employees having an active and open contract.
“Right now, it’s on Saint Mary’s to do what’s right. It’s on Saint Mary’s.”
“So, of course, we got them to change that back because of our contract,” he said. “But that gave us an insight as to the tactics that this employer was about to employ. And, sure enough, here we are. It took them a little bit, but they finally came out and said, ‘Hey, we want to raise health insurance rates for employees. We want to raise premium rates for the employees. We want to raise the co-pays for the visits for employees.’
“And all of this, of course, in the middle of a global pandemic where these are all frontline, essential workers—working with COVID patients in a hospital, an acute care facility with an emergency room and an operating suite..”
Wendy Friedl has been an ultrasound technician for 28 years, 18 of them at Saint Mary’s. She’s also the CWA’s vice president for the hospital and a member of its negotiating team. She echoed Longer’s feelings about the now nearly year-long negotiations process for both health care benefits and wages.
“Finally, two weeks ago, they proposed a little bit of an increase in our wages as far as an annual wage,” she said. “And then, as far as the wage scale goes, they proposed a slight increase for only certain job descriptions. But we don’t think that we have fair wages here that keep people here. They can go down to Renown and make three to five dollars more for a lot of positions.”
She said the health care coverage being proposed by Prime covers less than what employees have had over the past few years.
“They say, ‘Oh, we won’t increase the premiums, but the co-pays are going to double on everything,” Friedl said. “And certain things will be limited on how many visits you can have—chiropractor, physical therapy, which some of them are pretty much open. We don’t have a set number of times you can go. We want to be treated fairly. We want to be treated fairly, so we can take care of our patients.”
Friedl said that this treatment of employees in recent years has led to high turnover. Nurses in May also picket the hospital, citing unsafe working conditions during the pandemic.
“We kind of get a revolving door,” she said. “People get experience and then they go somewhere else because they can get more money.”
Longer agreed, adding, “We’ve brought that up with the employer ad nauseum. They refuse to acknowledge—even though the data is there, and it’s very clear from the Bureau of Labor Statistics … and just pass to us these proposals that are grossly lacking.”
Longer said the union has and will continue to press Prime to be fair its offers for wages and health care. Friedl said the team has scheduled negotiations with the hospital through the end of the year.
“We’re not asking for anything outrageous,” Longer said. “We’re asking for pretty basic bread and butter items for our members to provide for their families and to keep the community safe, keep patients safe to have decent staffing levels so that we can provide a high quality of care that patients deserve.
“Right now, it’s on Saint Mary’s to do what’s right. It’s on Saint Mary’s,” he added.
Marc Ellis is the president of CWA Local 9413 but works for AT&T, which is also among companies whose workers are represented by the union.
“The last thing we want to do is strike,” Ellis said. “We’ve been a pillar of this community—Saint Mary’s has been a pillar of this community. So, we just want to come out here and let the community know, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on. Could you please reach out to the hospital and tell them to do the right thing? Because how can we take good care of you if we’re stressing about our own insurance?’”
Strikes by workers at hospitals around the country have been happening increasingly often in recent months.
He said many employees were made more upset over wages and health care negotiations by Prime’s decision to buy another hospital in California during the pandemic instead of putting funds toward better compensation.
“We were like, ‘Wait? We are your gold standard. We are your money maker. Take care of us.’” Ellis said. “This hospital, like I said, used to be a pillar of the community around here. And it’s just kind of sad that it’s going in that direction.”
Friedl said concerns surrounding contract negotiations and fears over COVID-19 have been weighing heavily on workers at Saint Mary’s. And she, like Ellis, feels like these are symptomatic of a change in culture at the hospital under the ownership of Prime Healthcare Services.
“It really does get to you after a while,” she said. “This used to be a community hospital. I don’t feel like it’s that anymore. I feel like we give good care to our patients because that’s what we’re taught to do—but I don’t feel like we’re taken care of from the higher ups.”
This Is Reno reached out to Prime Healthcare Services for comment but did not receive a response prior to publication of this story. If one is received, this story may be updated.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.