Sister Knows Best

If the nuns in charge of the St. Joseph Health System are so pro-labor,why are some of their employees determined to unionize?

Sadrac Martinez, a janitorial worker at Mission Hospital who has worked there close to 10 years, noticed a few months ago that he and other co-workers were not seeing overtime hours reflected on their paychecks. Their supervisors, who are outsourced by the health system to third-party Aramark Corporation, would sometimes pay employees in cash when mistakes were found and would urge employees not to go to the hospital's HR department, he says.

One of the biggest issues for Martinez is the increased workload and decreased number of workers in his department, which he believes has led to an overall decline in hospital cleanliness. "There used to be seven people on the night shift, and now there are only two—and the hospital has grown," he says. He worries about the hospital's reputation. "To the hospital, the Aramark managers are good managers because they have a low cost and get the work done. But they don't know how Aramark does it," says Martinez, citing the bigger cleaning areas he and co-workers have been given and Aramark's emphasis on speed.

"We have a limited amount of time to clean between surgeries, approximately five minutes between three of us. Where is the concern for health? A surgery room that is stained and dirty after a surgery needs to be inspected very carefully. Five minutes is not enough time. The cleanliness of the room is not guaranteed in five minutes. If the next patient comes in, and there is bacteria there, they may get infected."

Lab techs, receptionists, respiratory therapists and other workers at St. Joseph Health System donít feel like they can talk openly about forming a union. clockwise from top left: Drina Robledo, David Cox, Noel Paraiso, Janice Smith, Mary Grijalva, Dianna Cooper. Photo by Jennie Warren

Martinez was suspended earlier this year in a move the union says was motivated because Martinez was vocal about his union support. (Unfair labor charges are pending with the National Labor Relations Board.)

His co-worker at Mission Hospital, Maria Godinez, who works on a janitorial team that has more direct contact with patients, says there needs to be more emphasis on working together as a team with doctors and nurses. "The doctor is as important as the nurse, who is as important as the person cleaning the room so that the patient arrives and doesn't acquire an infection. Our work is also important. But the whole world sees us as beneath them," she says. Godinez, who also went to HR over unpaid overtime hours, was also suspended earlier this year. "I was talking in the parking garage with someone, and some co-workers told them I was talking about the union. Then they suspended me. But I was outside, in the parking garage; it doesn't matter what I was talking about," she says.

Noel Paraiso, a dialysis technician at St. Joseph Hospital who has a reputation for being a kind of unofficial team leader in his department, says his supervisors effectively quieted him down. Paraiso likes to organize: He organized the system's first chapter in the Association of Nephrology Technicians and was interested when he first heard about union-organizing efforts in March. He knew there would be interest among his colleagues, especially in the area of equal pay, so he began talking candidly about the union during breaks and at lunch time.

When Paraiso's picture appeared in the monthly union newsletter, he was called in to meet with a group of supervisors last month. "That's the first time I've ever been called in," he says. He was told that co-workers were complaining that he was being forceful with them to sign a petition, which he denies. He was also told he could no longer post union material at his work station. "It was basically like a warning to me. They didn't make me sign anything." He says he and his fellow Filipino co-workers have been told they cannot speak Tagalog in the break room, but he's defied that rule. "I know my rights," he says.

But, he says, the effect of being called in has been chilling and has made him worry enough about his job to keep quiet. "If they can get to me and have me back off, then the others will follow," he says.

*     *     *

Stories like these have been circulating between system hospitals in Northern and Southern California and have in some cases divided employees over the hospital's organizing policy and overshadowed the sisters' long history of public service.

In an effort to address some of these issues, and following the findings by the NLRB, this summer, health-system managers released a one-page code of conduct to employees, promising them that they would not hold mandatory staff meetings, that they "embraced open and fair discussions," and that information shared about the union would be factual, among other things. They also reiterated their preference for a "direct working relationship."

"We were looking at making sure that we could set guidelines with our management," senior vice president and chief human-resources officer Bill Murin told the Weekly in August. "We developed [the code of conduct] with a multidisciplinary team in the organization." Murin said the team included only management staff. The code, which was finalized by managers in early 2007, does not define disciplinary action for management in the case that its provisions are violated, which 60 employees alleged was continuing to happen as late as August 2007, when they hand-delivered a letter on union letterhead to Sister Katherine.

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