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Palomar Health nurses say they're being intimidated during negotiations, management pushes back

In the North County health care workers can’t reach a deal with one of the region's largest providers. KPBS Health Reporter Matt Hoffman explains.<br/>

In Escondido caregivers and nurses are calling on Palomar Health to bargain in good faith, but after more than a year of talks, it still has not led to a new contract.

"This is the most hostile and racist and most anti-union, anti-work administration that I’ve ever worked with," said Gildardo Millan, who has been a Palomar Health union steward and food service employee for 30 years.

Local chapters of the California Nurses Association (CNA) and the Caregivers and Healthcare Employees Union (CHEU) say management has been intimidating employees.

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"Very very anti-union," said Patcita Balcom, who represents Palomar Health's caregivers through CHEU. "We never had this experience before."

Palomar Health CEO Diane Hansen released a statement citing the "unrealistic demands of the unions." Palomar officials also pushed back on allegations of intimidation.

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Chief of Human Resources Geoff Washburn said they have been asking employees if they would strike, but he maintains that is not intimidation and it's the company's right. Washburn also pushed back on allegations of racism.

"That’s fictitious, erroneous, shameful and disappointing," Washburn said. "We know that this was just a tactic for media attention."

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Union stewards said non-English speaking employees are treated poorly and are often given undesirable shifts.

"They do get more oppressed because they don't understand much English or their rights a lot of times," Millan said.

The contract for caregivers and nurses expired last month. Palomar said they recently made their last, best and final offer, which included 4% raises over the next three years. It was recently rejected by union leadership.

"We’ve offered those last best and finals because we need to move discussions along," Washburn said. "Are we still open to negotiations? Absolutely, we’re ready to meet. We just can’t be held hostage to these delays."

Some employees, like in food service, are making just above minimum wage. Union leaders worry about them.

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"So every year it’s 4% [proposed raise]. Inflation is what? Almost 8% right now. Come on, you cannot survive," said Millan.

The unions said it is not all about money and there are also disagreements about patient care and contracting out certain services.

"I think that’s kinda how they’re trying to portray it — that we’re greedy or something and they’re trying to say, 'This a great offer, you haven’t had a raise,'" said Palomar Health Nurse Susan Adams.

Adams said the unions have involved a state mediator and plan to report instances of alleged intimidation.

"We find that this is highly irregular and inappropriate — illegal," she said.

Both sides said after 20 years on union contracts, it is unusual that a new deal cannot be finalized. There has not been a strike vote called, but the union is accusing Palomar management of illegally declaring an impasse of negotiations.

"We’re not anti-union," Washburn said. "We had a good relationship for many years — they are just pushing the envelope right now."

The nurses and caregiver unions represent about 3,000 employees. Washburn said just over a dozen employees at Monday's news conference shows that there is not widespread support for a strike.

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