The union representing workers at five Northern New Mexico hospitals, including Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, wants state and federal aid for hospital workers on temporary leave or furlough.

About 300 employees at Christus St. Vincent and its clinics were put on temporary leave this week for up to 90 days or more. Other hospitals across the state also have sidelined workers without pay or cut hours.

“On the one hand, it had to be done,” said Eleanor Chavez, executive director of National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees District 1199NM in Albuquerque. “But how do we deal with the impact? How do we make sure workers don’t lose income? How do we cushion the impact? That is the hard question.”

Chavez said she wants federal hazard pay for the Christus St. Vincent workers on leave, as well as for those at other hospitals.

But the union did not call for immediately reopening elective surgery at New Mexico medical facilities — a huge source of revenue at hospitals and a leading reason Christus St. Vincent saw a 35 percent decline in patients since mid-March. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on March 25 banned “nonessential” surgeries to safeguard the dwindling supply of protective gear.

“We are asking her to make sure there is an adequately protected environment at hospitals,” said Chavez, whose union represents about 800 employees at Christus St. Vincent. “We want her to ensure that workers that are quarantined do not have to use their own paid leave. We also want her to ensure that workers at hospitals are protected by social distancing. The governor should ask for state and federal assistance to keep these workers paid.”

The union negotiated with Christus St. Vincent for the temporary low-volume leave rather than layoffs so employees can be easily recalled and maintain benefits during their time away, said Delma Delora, president of District 1199NM.

Delora said Christus St. Vincent was the only hospital among the five the union represents to talk with union officials about establishing a team to call into action when COVID-19 arrived.

The union also has bargaining units at Los Alamos Medical Center; Holy Cross Hospital in Taos; Alta Vista Regional Hospital in Las Vegas, N.M.; and University of New Mexico Hospital.

Chavez said she believes Christus St. Vincent could have avoided the temporary leave even with its claim the hospital is losing $10 million a month during the crisis.

“Our position is because they are a corporation that has been very profitable, they can afford to keep employees on the payroll,” Chavez said. “We do not agree with what is happening in terms of them being furloughed or hours cut. They should be maintained on the payroll because we think the corporation can afford it.”

Meanwhile, the Republican leadership in the state House of Representatives on Wednesday sent a letter to Lujan Grisham, asking her to allow rural hospitals to again provide care that includes “critical dialysis visits, cancer treatment and physical therapy,” according to a news release.

“Eliminating elective surgeries and restricting patient care to free up space for COVID-19 patients are well-intended to stem the spread of the virus, however, in reality this policy is placing New Mexico’s rural hospitals in a serious financial position in which they may not be able to recover,” read the letter, signed by House Minority Leader Jim Townsend of Artesia, Minority Whip Rod Montoya of Farmington and Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences.

(1) comment

Maxwell Vertical

Start to permit some elective surgeries and get healthcare workers back to work. Start with out-patient procedures which don't take hospital beds, and are often done in clinics or facilities separated from other hospital operations. As time passes, and it's apparent the curve has flattened, let other elective surgeries proceed. The ban on all elective surgeries does can continue severe pain and result in other health issues. Joint replacements and cataract surgery are two examples of banned surgeries which have significant quality of life consequences.

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