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Health care workers unionize at Sharp Grossmont Hospital

San Diego’s only East County hospital has voted to unionize an additional 1,458 health care workers. The new union under SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West covers a variety of positions including certified nursing assistants, pharmacy technicians and respiratory therapists. Registered nurses are already represented by a separate union.

"I'm walking through the hallways — people are hugging and smiling — they’re excited about this," said Haba Serrano, an emergency room technician at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

Serrano was one of the 720 workers who voted to form the union. He hopes the move will bring better pay and more staff.

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"This isn’t just about wages and staffing," Serrano said. "It’s about quality care for our patients. We have always said, 'We’ll take care of them — no matter how many come through the door — no matter what the situation is. We will always take care of our patients,' But now we have this feeling of — we are going to be taken care of."

Serrano and some of his coworkers spoke at a Jan. 24 La Mesa City Council meeting, where a resolution was passed in support of free and fair elections at the union organization effort.

"I’ve been with Sharp since 2015 and my reason for joining a union is to have a voice," said Joni Vargas, a phlebotomist at Sharp Grossmont. "I want to see changes that fill the needs for staffing, better pay and worker safety."

The vote to unionize was completed late Friday night with 55% in favor. The vote still needs to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). After that comes elections for bargaining committees, then negotiating a new contract with Sharp.

"We’re going to figure out what all the workers want and get a contract," Serrano said. "We’re hoping that Sharp works with us and give us what we need to keep going."

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After the successful vote, a Sharp spokesperson issued a statement maintaining their commitment to patient care. When asked about staff shortages and pay, the spokesperson said it has been a challenge recruiting workers since the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 1,700 positions open across their entire hospital system. There are nearly 300 open at Sharp Grossmont alone.

"Sharp is indeed hiring and we offer wages and benefits that are competitive in the San Diego market," said Sharp spokesperson John Cihomsky. "We also continually review compensation across the San Diego region in health care to ensure we remain competitive with other systems."

Cihomsky added last November the company introduced a new minimum wage of $20 per hour, increased pay for employees making under $40 per hour and gave a 5% raise for every employee.

For Serrano, the vote to unionize is personal. He said growing up his father worked at a local steel company and life changed when his dad joined a union.

"We went from living in a little apartment in Lakeside and they became homeowners — the American dream happened to them," Serrano said. "It affected my life growing up so much, (now) I can see that in my coworkers. These coworkers that are working so many hours — some other jobs — they’re healthcare workers. They should have money to put a roof over their head."

Before voting ended, Sharp officials did file a claim with the NLRB alleging the union, "Engaged in intimidating and threatening behaviors at employees’ homes and elsewhere." A spokesperson for SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West called the claim frivolous.

"The NLRB claim filed last week by Sharp Grossmont was a desperate, last-minute attempt to influence the election and divert attention from the low wages and short-staffing," said SEIU spokesperson Renée Saldaña.

If no objections to the final union vote are brought, a spokesperson for the NLRB said Sharp must begin bargaining in good faith. A spokesperson for the company would not say if they plan to challenge results.

Registered nurses at all Sharp hospitals are represented under United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP). Grossmont is the first Sharp hospital to have other health care and technical workers unionize.