dignity health southwest

Dignity Health Mercy Southwest 

Hundreds of union healthcare workers plan to protest outside of two local hospitals this month as they demand better wages, benefits and pathways to improving patient care ahead of a merger between two healthcare giants that would be worth billions.

The protests taking place outside of Mercy Hospital Southwest Tuesday and Bakersfield Memorial Hospital Feb. 28 are part of a statewide demonstration this week, with employees at 27 hospitals taking part.

It comes just two months after Dignity Health — which operates Mercy Hospital Southwest and Bakersfield Memorial Hospital — announced it would be merging with Colorado-based Catholic Health Initiatives to create a $28 billion healthcare giant. It will be headquartered in Chicago, operate 700 care sites and 139 hospitals and employ more than 159,000 staff members and 25,000 physicians.

Employees fear that they could be left behind in the merger and want to finalize ongoing contract negotiations before federal regulators approve the merger, said Sean Wherley, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union’s United Healthcare Workers.

The SEIU contract expires April 1, Wherley said.

“They want to secure a strong contract to protect wages and benefits and improve patient care,” Wherley said. “That’s a priority before the merger takes effect because Catholic Health Initiatives has a record of undermining workers and harming patient care.”

Wherley pointed to CHI’s elimination of nearly 3,000 full-time jobs in its hospitals across the country in fiscal year 2017.

CHI Spokesman Michael Romano acknowledged Monday that CHI is unsure how jobs would be impacted by the merger.

“We expect integration to take one to two years, but beyond that, it’s too early to tell what impact, if any, the combination will have on jobs,” Romano said.

Dignity Health revised its statement Tuesday, saying that since there is no geographic overlap in hospital service areas locally, CHI anticipates no "significant impact to local jobs" in Bakersfield.

He reinforced, however, that the merger would create a “stronger operational and financial foundation to expand access to quality care.”

Doctors and registered nurses, Wherley said, will not take part in the demonstrations, but housekeepers, surgery technicians and other employees would. Nearly 15,000 Dignity Health employees nationwide are SEIU-UHW members. Locally, there are 744 union workers at Mercy Hospital Southwest, and 861 at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital, Wherley said.

“Patients, workers and the community need to be reassured that this new corporation is going to look out for them in the future,” Jermene Ebanks, a Mercy Hospital Southwest employee, said. “It’s all too common for a mega-corporation to squeeze employees and harm patients in the process rather than invest in both of them.”

Dignity Health began negotiating last month with SEIU on a master agreement impacting 15,000 employees SEIU represents at 28 California hospitals.

“Throughout these negotiations we have shown respect for our employees and Dignity Health continues to bargain in good faith. We pledge to maintain open lines of communication, and do everything we can to reach an agreement that is fair to our employees, our patients and our organization,” Dignity Health officials said in an emailed statement.

The demonstrations will take place two days this month locally. Workers will protest between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Tuesday at Mercy Hospital Southwest, 400 Old River Road; and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 28 at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital, 420 34th Street.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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