Health & Medicine

From behind the scenes to picket lines: Why Dignity lab workers want better benefits

Union representatives for more than 200 laboratory scientists and technologists at Dignity Health say they plan informational picketing Monday at their employer's facilities in Woodland, Stockton and Carmichael, having rejected the company's latest contract offer for wages and benefits.

Michael Aidan, assistant executive director of Engineers and Scientists of California Local 20, said a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service will begin working with company and union contract negotiators on Monday to try and reach common ground.

Dignity spokesperson Melissa Jue said the company had been notified of the union's intention to do informational picketing sessions around the Sacramento region.

"While we are disappointed in this decision, we remain committed to negotiate in good faith and work to resolve the outstanding bargaining issues," Jue said. "During the informational picket sessions, our hospitals will remain open and all services will continue to be available."

Aidan said that, since this is not a strike, union members must picket on their own time, so employees would likely come out on their lunch break to do so at Woodland Memorial Hospital, St. Joseph's Medical Center in Stockton and Mercy San Juan in Carmichael. There will also be some leafleting at Mercy Folsom, Methodist Hospital in south Sacramento and Mercy General in East Sacramento.

The union is currently negotiating contracts for all the facilities and hopes to fold them into one agreement. Contracts at Mercy General and Woodland Memorial expired in spring of this year. The St. Joseph's contract negotiations are a first for the union. Lab staff there voted to join the Engineer and Scientist Local 20 late last year, and their vote was certified by the National Labor Relations Board in December, Aidan said.

Rank-and-file members, Aidan said, are frustrated over the institution of health care premiums and wage inequities among laboratory staff. The introduction of a medical premium, Aidan said, would in essence be the employer taking back workers' wages to finance Dignity facilities, lab tests and physicians. Aidan estimated that premiums could be as much as $2,000 a year for some workers.

"The irony is that it’s the employer’s own health coverage program, so they have the ability with good management and good interaction with the union ... to control the costs," Aidan said.

He noted that the company made a similar proposal to institute premiums to SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, but in the end, agreed to give up the effort.

The other issue for Woodland-area lab scientists, Aidan said, is that they can be working side by side with a lab scientist who reports to a different unit of the company and earns higher wages. The union has proposed that the wage study be done in all six sites it represents, and Aidan said he's hoping the results will be used to bring about some parity.

Patients don't typically see the work of the employees in Local 20, Aidan said, but these workers think of what they do as the hidden heart of health care. It's a laboratory scientist or technician who will run the patients' blood, urine and other samples through a battery of tests to assess things like cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

"We estimate that 70 percent of what a doctor knows when he or she is visiting with you, they get it from the lab tests," Aidan said. "Our members do that critical work in health care, and they are in short supply."

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