On Nov. 6, 2020, members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 9413 union gathered outside of Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center holding signs that called the hospital’s parent company greedy and unaccountable.
On Jan. 21, these same members were again picketing in front of the hospital. They still have the same complaints.
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). For nearly a year now, they said they have struggled to negotiate agreements with the hospital’s management concerning their health care benefits and wages.
“Unfortunately, we’ve kept up our end of the bargain in terms of negotiating with the employer in good faith, working diligently to try to address the gaps in our negotiations—specifically concerns over wages and benefits and also to address deficiencies in staffing. Right now, Saint Mary’s is critically understaffed,” said Robert Longer, a representative of CWA and the chief bargainer for the workers’ current contract negotiations with the hospital.
According to Longer, the latest proposal made by Saint Mary’s to the union would actually expand the costs for insurance co-payments for employees, “which would essentially be an increase in cost for the employees to utilize the same plan.” He added that the wage proposal from Saint Mary’s does not keep up with inflation, saying, “we’re at a critical juncture now with Saint Mary’s and these negotiations.”
The union and Saint Mary’s are approaching the one-year mark of negotiations, which began in February 2020. Longer said there is not an explicit deadline for further action by the union and its members. However, he added that the possibility of a strike is not off the table.
“That would be the last resort,” Longer said. “We certainly don’t want to take our folks off the job or endanger public safety. But our folks are literally being endangered.”
Union members allege a surgeon with COVID-19 symptoms was allowed on the job
In addition to their frustrations over contract negotiations with the hospital, CWA’s members claim they are frustrated that a surgeon was allowed to perform his duties while symptomatic for the COVID-19 virus and later tested positive for it.
Marc Ellis is the president of CWA Local 9413 but works for AT&T, which is among companies whose workers are represented by the union. According to Ellis, the surgeon got in the temperature check line before entering the hospital and registered a temperature too high to be allowed to proceed with his duties.
“He stated he was a doctor, he knew better than they did and bypassed the line and went on to perform surgeries—and then, after his surgeries, took a test and tested positive for COVID,” Ellis said. “We filed a grievance with Saint Mary’s, and they told us it’s not a part of our contract, so they weren’t even going to hear it. We brought this up on a conference call I had with the governor. We turned it over to Health and Human Services. From my understanding, they’re going to do an investigation.”
“They’re gambling with our lives.
They’re gambling with our patients’ lives.”
The Nevada Department of Health and Human Service’s Division of Public and Behavioral Health confirmed to This Is Reno that it is investigating the complaint.*
John Metcalfe, a surgery technician for 20 years at Saint Mary’s, said he worked alongside the surgeon and echoed the allegation of a COVID-positive surgeon performing his duties while symptomatic before testing positive for the virus.
“That day I was doing three surgeries with that particular surgeon,” Metcalfe said. “He came into my room and said, ‘They thought I was sick’ and that everything was fine, and he walked out. Our anesthesiologist came over and said, ‘Well, if you feel unsafe to do this, you can refuse.’
“My problem with that is that my authority is about two feet off the ground. The people who really have the authority were not putting themselves in a position to help me make the decision. I cannot just say I’m abandoning my patients. I could get in trouble. … The next day I found out he was positive.”
Union members did not want to provide the surgeon’s name to the media but did show This Is Reno communications between the union and the hospital. Those messages show the union filed complaints, alleging the creation of a hostile work environment, and a response from Saint Mary’s management saying that the grievance they’d sent did not allege a violation of any specific section of their bargaining agreement.
Saint Mary’s denied the allegation.
In an email statement made to This Is Reno, Prime Healthcare media representatives wrote, “No Saint Mary’s staff, physician, vendor or provider can ‘disregard’ the entrance screening protocols. Everyone who enters the building must pass the COVID-19 screening process before being allowed entrance. We have never admitted anyone into the building who has not passed this screening. Saint Mary’s takes COVID-19 screening protocols very seriously and ensures that patients’, family members’, staff, and providers’ safety are priority.”
The hospital also denied allegations that it is understaffed.
“They’re gambling with our lives. They’re gambling with our patients’ lives,” he said. “And this gamble in the middle of a global pandemic is a terrible proposition.”
The next scheduled bargaining meeting between CWA and the hospital is Feb. 3.
*Update: This story has been updated to include the response from DHHS that it is investigating the complaint.
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.