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LOS ANGELES: Nurses Press Case for a Union

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Labor: State is entering dispute after Antelope Valley Hospital refuses to recognize workers' vote.



Nurses at Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster say they hope a union will help make conditions better for patients and themselves.

A recent push for union representation was generated by concerns among registered nurses that patient care was suffering because staffing had not kept pace with the area's growing population and its need for medical care.

In the last decade, the Antelope Valley's population grew by about 27%, to 318,000, but two of five hospitals closed. Now, 350-bed Antelope Valley Hospital could face even more pressure because of Los Angeles County's planned termination of inpatient care at nearby High Desert Hospital. "Pay is not the issue," said Colleen Sichley, a registered nurse at Antelope Valley. "It's unsafe staffing."

Officials with the California Nurses Assn. say that in May a majority of the hospital's registered nurses voted in favor of joining the union in hopes of strengthening their position.

But union and hospital officials cannot agree on the total number of registered nurses at the hospital: The union says there are 575 and the hospital says there are 653.

Union officials said nurses are continuing to send them pro-union votes, but hospital officials have refused to recognize the union because of a disagreement about how a union election should be held.

As a result, the state's Public Employment Relations Board issued a complaint on behalf of the nurses. Union and hospital representatives are scheduled to explain their positions to an administrative law judge July 22.

Gary Hill, chairman of the hospital board, said a shortage of nurses is a nationwide phenomenon.

The nurses and the union are taking advantage of jitters caused by what the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided to do with High Desert Hospital to cut costs in their troubled health-care system, Hill said. "I think [the union] is engaged in hyperbole," he said. "We know they are making a major statewide push to increase their membership."

Last week, nine Democratic state lawmakers, including Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) and Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), sent a letter to the Antelope Valley Hospital board outlining the perceived problems at the hospital.

The letter includes allegations that some hospital staffers engaged in "a wide range of anti-union activities." Lawmakers threatened to investigate the hospital if administrators do not recognize the union.

Ed Callahan, a spokesman for the hospital, denied any anti-union activity has occurred. And while he said patients have waited long periods for service, he said it's the result of "forces beyond our control."

"The problem," he said, "is we're the only full-service hospital" in the region.

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