article published: tuesday, june 24, 2003 - 12:00:00 am mst
nurses' lawsuit cites harassment over union effort
by karen auge, denver post medical writer
managers at denver health medical center threatened, intimidated and harassed nurses who attempted to form a union there, the nurses have charged in a lawsuit filed monday in federal court.
the suit, filed in u.s. district court in denver, doesn't ask for money or damages. instead, the suit asks denver health managers to stop the harassment and to remove from personnel files anything that says the employee violated hospital rules by participating in organizing efforts.
"it's definitely not about (money)," said theresa nino, a nurse in the hospital's trauma intensive care unit.
nino said the suit is about "a culture change" so that hospital management listens to rank-and-file suggestions and complaints.
"we are at the patient's bedside. whether it's about a policy or a medicine, i need to be able to speak up if i think we need to change something regarding patient care," nino said.
that's what the union organizing effort was about in the first place, she said.
"most people who work at denver health are not there to make the most money. but our hearts are in it and we felt with one voice, we could make a bigger impact," nino said.
a spokeswoman for the hospital said officials would not comment on the allegations because they had not seen the lawsuit.
she then declined an offer to provide hospital officials with a copy of the complaint, saying no one would address the charges until they had been served with the suit.
the suit alleges that managers and supervisors at the hospital repeatedly told employees they could be fired for attempting to form a union.
according to the complaint, staff members were prohibited from discussing the union, distributing information about it or meeting with union organizers on hospital grounds.
several managers belittled the particular union, service employees international (seiu), saying it represented janitors and housekeepers, the complaint says.
after signing a petition seeking a union, one nurse reportedly was told "think about whether you like your job before you go any further with this," according to the lawsuit.
denver health is the city's public hospital, and it provides the lion's share of care to denver residents who have no insurance.
as a government enterprise, denver health is not subject to the same labor laws that govern private businesses.
that is why the complaint was not taken to the national labor relations board, which would ordinarily have jurisdiction, said lynette pitcock-melchor, an organizer with seiu's denver office.
it is also why the suit alleges violations of nurses' first amendment rights, rather than violations of labor laws.
in colorado, according to local attorneys and to a written statement by a denver health attorney, public entities cannot be forced to participate in collective bargaining.
so a group of nurses asked the hospital's board of directors to recognize the union and to voluntarily agree to engage in collective bargaining, according to pitcock-melchor and nino.
so far, the board has not given the nurses an answer.
denver health lost $5.4 million in the first four months of this year, and is facing an estimated $12 million in budget cuts for 2003.
nurses said they have heard no one in their profession will be laid off.
but when other positions, such as housekeepers or technicians, are cut, it makes more work for nurses, nino said.
nurses would like to offer ideas for saving money, she said.
linda luton, a nurse in the adolescent psychiatric unit, said that during the eight years she has worked at denver health, "there has been a climate of nurses' input and ideas not being welcome."
the effort to organize made that situation worse rather than better, she said.
"as nurses tried to organize to collectively bargain, we received increased pressure," she said.