KERN COUNTY, Calif. (KERO) — Kern County Medical and some 1,500 of its union employees are at odds on multiple ends. On one end, the employees are represented by the local union and have been negotiating an increase in pay for almost two years. At the same time, a surgery center the hospital opened in 2019 is raising questions about fund transparency that has led employees to file a lawsuit.
George Pfister, is a clinical nurse leader at Kern Medical. He says the hospital, through its management firm, Meridian Healthcare Partners proposed and approved the use of $15 million to hire temporary workers for three days while current staff plan to strike in August.
"We have a voice but it kinda feels like that voice is being stifled because rather than give the money to us they are willing to give it to replacement employees and suppress our voice in the form of a strike," he said. "Instead of giving the $15 million to replacement workers, I'm on the bargain team like I said. Give that $15 million to the workers at Kern Medical. So let's take that 15 million and put it toward contracts. Increase our wage proposal by $15 million."
Pfister has been working at Kern Medical for 13 years and says he has never seen this happen. The main issue is most employees aren't staying as long as he has. He says lack of competitive pay is the reason.
"It's retention. Our wages are 24.7% below what other health care workers in our area received. Our turn rate is too high. That's the main issue. We're trying to reduce turnover rate and it has to do with pay and with working quality."
During the board meeting a representative from the union laid all of these points out but those on the governor's board still voted to approve that funding for temporary workers.
The vice president of Meridian Healthcare Partners, Scott Thygerson, did respond to the union rep in the meeting.
"In an attempt to engage the union, to give wage increases. We offered a comprehensive proposal in September of 2021 to be able to have meaningful discussions of how we give wage increases. The union did not respond until May 2nd with its comprehensive wage proposal. That proposal was not financially responsible."
Kern Medical also released a statement Wednesday afternoon about that planned strike, saying:
SEIU has postponed its previously announced 3-day strike from July 26 to August 9, 2022, to allow its members to vote on Kern Medical’s Last, Best, and Final Offer. SEIU and Kern Medical have been in negotiations for a new Memorandum of Understanding for represented employees for 14 months since May 2021. Kern Medical’s main goal throughout these negotiations has been to give wage increases to our employees. Kern Medical provided its initial comprehensive wage proposal to SEIU in September 2021. SEIU finally provided a counterproposal on wages for all employees on May 2, 2022, which allowed discussions to actually begin on much-needed wage increases for our employees.
It is apparent to us the strike is no longer about wage increases. SEIU is demanding changes to Kern Medical’s grievance and disciplinary process that has been in place since 2016, and before the County of Kern transferred ownership of Kern Medical to the hospital authority. This process is fair and has the appropriate checks and balances for all employees. If an employee reaches the end of the internal process, that employee may appeal to the Kern County Superior Court for review. This process is similar to other government agencies. The current grievance and disciplinary process has helped Kern Medical establish a culture of accountability to move us toward our goal of being the employer of choice in Kern County.
Kern Medical must be prepared for SEIU to strike. In anticipation of a strike, which we hope to avoid, the hospital authority’s Board of Governors approved entering into a one-year agreement with Aya Healthcare, Inc., to provide replacement workers if needed. The maximum payable amount of the agreement is $15 million. We recognize this is a lot of money, but critical hospital and clinic services must remain open and available to the public should a strike occur.
Kern Medical strongly encourages SEIU to accept our Last, Best, and Final Offer to give our employees the much-needed wage increases they deserve.
The union says they are now working on the next steps.
Meanwhile, that is not the only issue between the two parties. Union workers filed a lawsuit Monday for violating public disclosure laws.
Many employees have raised questions about a surgery center Kern Medical opened in 2019 under its own LLC. They argue the equipment meant for the hospital is shared with the surgery center which they believe does not provide care for the target audience of Kern Medical.
"The money was designated for Kern Medical. We help the underinsured. People who aren't insured. We help the homeless. We wanna stay focused on the mission," said Pfister. "We don't want money going to elsewhere. Cause currently the money is going to a surgical center that runs a medi-spa and its client tells the people on the west side so it's a much higher level of income. It's not really reaching the target, the desired audience."
23ABC did reach out to kern Medical and Meridian Healthcare Partners to confirm what is written in the lawsuit, but Kern Medical says it cannot comment on ongoing litigation and Meridian did not respond as of new time.
The 17-page lawsuit goes more in-depth on the events that led up to them resorting to taking legal action. The union hopes this will bring more transparency to the funds as they say these are taxpayer dollars that should be going towards helping the most vulnerable.