KY: 4 nurses in union win $270,000 from HCA

  1. Separately, Norton Healthcare is told by NLRB to pay worker

    By Patrick Howington
    The Courier-Journal

    The former owner of Norton Audubon Hospital, HCA Healthcare, has paid about $270,000 to four nurses to settle charges they were demoted or lost their jobs because of union activity.

    And in a separate case, the National Labor Relations Board has ordered Audubon's owner, Norton Healthcare, to pay back compensation to an employee it says was denied a job because of her union activity.

    The two developments are the latest in a long-running battle by the Nurses Professional Organization to unionize nurses at the Louisville hospital.

    Audubon's nurses aren't unionized, despite NPO attempts since 1989.

    ''We're very happy that there finally is some justice'' for individual employees,'' said NPO organizer Kay Tillow.

    ''The problem is that the justice comes so late that it doesn't have any real impact on the employers committing unfair labor practices. . . . We are still very far from gaining the right to freely choose to have a union.''

    The four nurses' case dates to the mid-1990s when Columbia/HCA, now HCA, owned Audubon. Norton, which bought the hospital in 1998, informed employees of the settlement Friday.

    The largest settlement, about $172,000, went to Joanne Sandusky, who lost her job as a lactation specialist in 1994 when HCA moved some infantcare positions from Audubon to another hospital.

    Other nurses in the infantcare unit were offered a chance to move to the other hospital, but Sandusky wasn't. The NLRB eventually found Audubon had discriminated against her because of her union activity, and ordered it to offer her the same job or an equivalent one.

    Sandusky's settlement amount was based on the difference between the pay Sandusky would have received at Audubon and the amounts she got in other jobs after being discharged.

    Like the other nurses, she also received interest and make-up contributions to 401(k) and pension plans.

    The other three nurses -- Patricia Clark, Ann Hurst and Terry Hundley -- lost their jobs as charge nurses at Audubon in 1996 when the hospital launched a restructuring that reduced the nursing staff. They remained as lower-paying staff nurses.

    The NLRB ruled in 2000 that Audubon demoted them because of their union activities, including speaking out against staffing shortages. Clark and Hurst are officers of the union.

    The NLRB also ordered the hospital to offer them charge-nurse jobs, which it did. But Norton, by now the owner, declared the jobs to be supervisory, meaning the nurses would lose their union rights.

    The NLRB still is weighing whether Norton's offer was appropriate and whether it must pay the nurses any back pay beyond what HCA paid.

    In the other NLRB case involving Audubon, the board ordered back pay for Wilma McCombs, a housekeeping employee who is a member of the NPO's executive board.

    The Sept. 30 order upheld a ruling last fall by an NLRB administrative law judge, which Norton appealed.

    McCombs was one of 300 housekeepers working at Norton when it hired an outside company to replace that department in February 1999. She faced a pay cut from her Norton salary of $8.80 an hour to $7 with the new company.

    Norton promised that anyone from the housekeeping staff would be given first consideration for jobs at other departments in the hospital. But McCombs, who spoke out against the decision to hire the outside firm, was turned down several times for other jobs.

    She became a Norton employee again when the company brought the housekeeping function back inhouse in 2000.

    In his ruling last fall, NLRB Administrative Law Judge Irwin Socoloff found that Audubon had illegally held McCombs' pro-union activity against her. A three-member NLRB panel upheld the ruling.

    Tillow, the NPO organizer, said she didn't know how much pay and benefits are due McCombs.

    The panel also upheld Socoloff's ruling that an Audubon manager violated labor law through conversations with two nurses in 2000.

    After discussing nurse Maryann King's performance evaluation, a nurse manager asked her why she was wearing a union button, if she was unhappy with her job and other questions about the union. Socoloff said that questioning was ''coercive.''

    He also said the manager discriminated against the union by telling nurse Martha Ann Hurst not to talk about the union during work time, while permitting employees to discuss other non-work matters during work.

    Upholding Socoloff, the board ordered Norton to post a notice at its hospitals telling employees they have a right to support a union.

    In addition, it ordered Norton not to interrogate employees about their union sympathies. And it told the company not to forbid employees to talk about union matters during work while allowing other non-work discussions.

    A Norton spokeswoman said the company hasn't decided whether to appeal the order.
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