by Stephanie Hoover and Ardee Napolitano

A complaint filed by UNM Hospital employees last week regarding a rule that made flu shots mandatory for them has now reached the streets.

UNMH union employees gathered outside the hospital along Lomas Boulevard on Tuesday to rally against what protesters called “anti-working family” policies.

These include the recent mandatory flu vaccination rule and the lack of wage increases at the hospital, said Mario Valencia, a scrub tech and nurse at UNMH. He said employees have not seen a wage increase in three years, which is especially harsh since the minimum wage in the city went up at the beginning of this year.

“Everything goes up — gas prices, groceries,” he said. “Businesses have to raise their prices to compensate for the additional wage, and once again what we’re getting is devalued. We work hard, we take care of our patients, we’re passionate about our jobs, but we’re not treated as such. I just feel like we’re not appreciated in this hospital.”

After flu shot clinics opened in September, hospital employees were sent a memo informing them that flu vaccinations would be mandatory this year.

As a response, UNMH employees and members of District 1199 NM, a local union for health care employees, filed a complaint to the UNM Labor Board on Thursday. The union is not against the shot, but believes the terms should have been coordinated with the union because it is a change in contract.

Employees want to get the hospital’s attention, but they also want to capture the attention of the community, said UNMH nurse Lorie MacIver, president for the license and technical section of District 1199. She said she wants the community to understand that many nurses with seniority are leaving the hospital due to a lack of wage increases.

“UNMH is hemorrhaging experienced nurses because they’re not being compensated a fair market wage for their experience,” MacIver said. “And that can lead to unfavorable patient outcomes because all the studies show that experience on the floor makes a difference.”

She said that figures she gathered for their 2012 employee evaluations indicated that the hospital lost over 250 nurses in 2011. The cost to replace them was $20 million, she said, while the hospital estimated that it would have cost $10.5 million to give them raises had they stayed.

Bill Browne, administrative director for the union, said UNMH is a great hospital, but having an all-beginner staff is not good for patients or employees.

“This is the premiere hospital. Being the Trauma One center, it’s the teaching hospital,” Browne said. “We can’t have all beginner nurses teaching new beginner nurses. We can’t have all new doctors and nurses together when complicated cases arise. We’re concerned that this could compromise patient care.”

Browne said the union is concerned with negotiating the terms of the mandatory flu shot.

“They have to bargain those effects with the union — I mean, that’s just the way it is,” he said. “We are the voice of the employees, and any change in terms of employment has to go through us.”

Browne and other people involved in the complaint met with a lawyer representing the Labor Board Tuesday morning to renegotiate the new flu shot rule. They also voiced other concerns they had about the hospital, including wage increases.

But UNMH continued to defend its decision.

David Pitcher, chief medical officer of UNMH, stands by its decision to require employees to get flu shots. He said that in response to the complaint, the hospital plans to file a counter-claim to the UNM Labor Board by Nov. 18.

“In brief, the hospital believes that it has acted within its rights and has done nothing wrong,” he said. “First and foremost, I think that the decision of making flu shots mandatory was really a medical decision to make sure we’re doing what’s right with the patients and families we serve.”

Pitcher said the rule ensures the medical safety of patients and their families in the hospital. It is nothing unusual for the facility, he said.

“This is not something that is out of the ordinary. We have required for years mandatory shots for other illnesses … such as hepatitis and tuberculosis. Requiring a flu shot is in line with what we had done for many years. Those things were not necessarily negotiated by the union or by the employees.”

As it stands, employees are required by the new rule to have their flu shots by Dec. 1. At the moment, the UNM Labor Board is in negotiations with the party that filed the complaint.

Pitcher said UNMH does not plan to withdraw the change unless the Labor Board decides to require them to do so.

Still, he said he respects the points of view of the complainers.
“I understand that there have been labor management issues that have been raised by the union,” he said. “I fully respect their rights to pursue these issues.”