John Muir behavioral health workers to take unionization vote

Facade with sign and logo at John Muir Health Urgent Care center in San Ramon, California, June 28, 2019. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Almost 200 workers at John Muir Health Behavioral Health Center in Concord are now voting, or will do so shortly, on whether they want to unionize.

Renee Saldana, a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union - United Healthcare Workers based in Los Angeles, said ballots went out Tuesday to 107 workers at the behavioral health center, on Grant Street near John Muir's Concord Medical Center, and that those workers are now voting. Saldana said ballots are set to be sent Feb. 2 to 84 registered nurses employed at the behavioral health center. All elections, Saldana said, should be complete by Feb. 24.

Saldana claims that John Muir Health Systems management has ignored worker complaints about safety protocols, especially around COVID-19 safety. 

"Management refuses to listen to us, the frontline workers, and it seems we have another COVID-19 incident every week," said Haley Arterberry, a mental health counselor at the facility, in a statement from the SEIU-UHW. "Workers are brought into small conference rooms for mandatory, anti-unionization meetings in groups without being tested." 

In the statement, Arterberry described a meeting in which nine people were in a meeting with a co-worker who later tested positive. "Then they want us to come to work after being exposed to COVID-19 while we're waiting for our tests to come back."  

Ben Drew, a John Muir Health spokesman, said in an email this week the COVID-10-positive employee described by the union violated JMH policy by had been in a break room with two other employees, within six feet of each other and unmasked "for a prolonged period of time." Contract tracing, Drew said, showed no other employees subsequently tested positive for the virus. 

Drew said the union's description of this "exposure event" is deliberately misleading. What  he described in an email as "small-group educational meetings regarding union representation" are held either outside or in a large conference room, and all participants must wear masks and socially distance. 

Drew defended John Muir Health's COVID-19 numbers -- six system employees have tested positive from among 1,168 tests administered, none of them at the Behavioral Health Center.- a positivity rate of 0.51 percent. None of the employees who tested positive from workplace exposure are employed at the Behavioral Health Center, he added.  

Behavioral Health Center workers in December filed their petition to unionize. Saldana said the workers seek improved facility safeguards, access to proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for all staff daily, safe staffing levels, and on-demand and regularly scheduled COVID-19 testing of all employees.

Union organizers say they also want JMH to comply with COVID-19-protection "best practices" as prescribed by the Center for Disease Control, the California Department of Public Health and the Contra Costa County Health Services department. Drew said in an email that those best practices are already the rule. 

Drew acknowledged union organizing efforts can be contentious. 

"We respect the right of our Behavioral Health Center employees to choose whether to be represented by a union or maintain a direct relationship with John Muir Health," said. "It's important for our Behavioral Health Center employees to make that decision based on facts."