A bitter, months-long battle for union representation at Los Robles Regional Medical Center is expected to culminate today when nurses cast their ballots on whether to join the American Federation of Nurses.
But the outcome of the election will be secret for months due to the hospital's challenge of who is eligible to vote.
The National Labor Relations Board plans to impound ballots while awaiting a decision on which of the nurses can vote in the election, a board spokesman said. The hospital contends that certain nurses are supervisors and thus should not be allowed to participate.
Meanwhile, the hospital, which strongly opposes the union, has consistently urged all eligible employees to vote in today's election.
Some nurses say they need the union to prevent the hospital from cutting pay and benefits and from reducing the ratio of licensed nurses to patients without consulting the nurses.
Lesley Whitehouse, an emergency room nurse who is president of the hospital nurses union, said the delay of the results will be frustrating. "But," she said, "I don't mind waiting if the administration can't make any unilateral changes" in the interim.
Throughout the day Wednesday, administrators invited nurses to meetings to discuss union representation, said Kris Carraway, director of public affairs for the hospital.
"We feel that this is not at all conducive to a productive and positive work environment, and we believe a majority of our staff feels the same way," said Ken Underwood, chief operating officer of the medical center.
Carraway said Wednesday's meetings were held to make sure nurses knew what they would get with union representation. "We are very concerned about our nurses and that they know what the union is giving them for the $600 a year they will pay," she said.
Union supporters say that $600 is the maximum amount any employee would pay and that it would apply to very few nurses. A nurse who makes $40,000 a year would pay $520 a year in dues.
The quest for a union began 18 months ago, said Jim Moreau, an organizer with the American Federation of Nurses, Local 535. A committee of about 30 nurses formed their own hospital union and elected officers a year ago, he said.
The hospital employs about 340 nurses and 25 of them are undisputed management employees and ineligible to vote, Moreau said. A regional office of National Labor Relations Board ruled earlier this year that about 320 nurses were eligible to vote, he said. The hospital has asked the board's national office in Washington to review the ruling.
"We feel very confident," Moreau said. "We have a majority of nurses paying dues since we filed for election in December. That's sort of unusual, since they usually vote first and then form a union."
With health care providers nationwide searching for ways to curtail spiraling medical costs, nurses say they need a voice in the upcoming decisions.
Nurses at Los Robles have received notices with their paychecks informing them that extra pay for weekend shifts was being eliminated, amounting to a $1,200-a-year cut for some nurses, said Brenda Perry, shop steward and an emergency room nurse for 13 years. They have also seen cuts in sick time, overtime and other benefits, she said.
Nurses are also concerned about nationwide trends of replacing registered nurses with less-trained vocational nurses for some bedside patient procedures.
"We understand changes are coming, and nothing is going to stop them," Perry said. "But the union will make sure the hospital has to negotiate with us and get our input before making major changes. Right now, we're so vulnerable."