Nursing wounds 

Union fights to keep Hillside Manor staff in the fold

After 17 years on the payroll at Hillside Manor Nursing Home in Missoula, Kari Hoffman still relies on public welfare programs to help pay the rent each month. The soft-spoken, single mother of three says the work of a certified nursing assistant (CNA) may be intimate, exhausting and largely thankless, but it’s important, and she says she cares for Hillside’s elderly residents like they’re family.

More than two years ago, Montana legislators tried to boost wages for Hoffman, who’s president of the UNITE HERE! Local 427 union that represents Hillside workers, and other nursing home workers across the state by approving a publicly funded raise. At the time, they said the low pay nursing home workers receive—in 2006, Montana nursing assistants earned an average of $9.55 an hour, or under $20,000 a year—wasn’t enough to keep quality workers in crucial positions. But it didn’t occur to them that a nursing home operator might simply pocket the money. Now, an ongoing dispute between Hillside Manor and its employee union has local community leaders such as Sen. Greg Lind disparaging Hillside managers as “unethical and repugnant” for pinching public money intended for its workers.

On Dec. 19, a long-escalating clash between the management and union of Hillside Manor should come to a head, when employees at the nursing home on Missoula’s south side will vote whether to keep or dissolve the union that’s represented employees there for the last 20 years. Federal labor officials already overturned a June 8 election that was supposed to settle the Hillside union’s future, after determining that managers interfered with the election by engaging in “objectionable conduct.” Additionally, union members say the attempts to dissolve the Hillside union—a process known as decertification—reveal a broader management scheme to dismantle the union. Besides the decertification elections, union members point to a confidential handbook, recently obtained by the Independent, which coaches managers in union-breaking tactics. Starla Horwath, executive director of Hillside, refused to comment for this story, and two attorneys for the nursing home did not respond to repeated requests for comment; however, public legal documents filed on Hillside’s behalf characterize the nursing home’s response.

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Sen. Lind’s goal when he introduced the Direct Care Worker Wage Increase Law was simple: He wanted to help nursing homes pay their workers more, so with Sen. John Cobb, R-Augusta, he co-sponsored an optional state-funded raise during the 2005 legislative session. It gave nursing homes an extra $1 per hour for each employee, with 75 cents intended for direct wage increases and 25 cents for benefits, in the hopes that it would help nursing homes retain workers.

“When employers can’t attract and maintain workers, the turnover isn’t good for the residents or anyone else involved,” Lind says.

The wage enhancement program went smoothly in every instance except one. At Hillside, managers gave employees the publicly funded raise, but in May 2006 when a previously negotiated raise of 35 cents per hour (and 15 cents per hour for newly hired employees) was slated to go into effect, management claimed it had already paid the raise and that it wouldn’t make further increases. Thus, the nursing home used taxpayer money to pay a wage increase it had negotiated long before the state wage add-on existed. And the boost that legislators had intended to give to underpaid workers instead went to the managers of a for-profit company.

“It was very frustrating for myself and other subcommittee members to work hard to do the right thing for some of the most vulnerable people in the state, and folks doing some of the toughest work for the lowest wages, and to have [public money] instead used for corporate enrichment rather than the benefit of the residents and workers,” Lind says. “It was just very frustrating for all of us.”

The union drummed up public support in an attempt to pressure Hillside, but didn’t get anywhere for months. At a June 2006 rally outside the nursing home, Hoffman says, local community leaders turned out to convince management to change its mind, but didn’t succeed. During the 2007 legislative session, Lind sponsored an amendment known to many as the “Hillside Amendment” that specifically forbade what the nursing home had done. Matt Thiel, the attorney for Local 427 who helped draft the amendment, says it spelled out what lawmakers had intended all along.

“If legislators say we want these lower-paid employees to get a dollar an hour, they should actually get that,” he says. “[Nursing homes] shouldn’t make money off of it, because it’s taxpayer money.”

After months of unsuccessfully pressuring Hillside, the union filed a grievance and William Corbett, a University of Montana law professor, arbitrated the dispute and ruled in the union’s favor. He explicitly rejected Hillside’s argument that it could apply public money to its private obligations, and in a written ruling ordered the nursing home to implement its raise retroactively plus pay interest. A union representative for Hillside workers, Mark Anderlik, says the payments totaled more than $19,000 in back pay and interest.

Hoffman says she has little sympathy for Hillside’s attempts to use public money to cut its own costs. The small 35-cent raise that Hillside fought so hard against may only total about $14 a week, but it’s money direly needed by employees already struggling to survive. In contrast, she says, Hillside’s parent company only stood to enlarge its profit margin. 

“They’re an out-of-state corporation that owns all kinds of businesses and just wants more money for [its] pockets,” she says.

The Goodman Group, a Minnesota-based company, owns three of the four nursing homes in Missoula, including Hillside, the Village Health Care Center and Riverside Health Care Center, though Hillside is the only unionized workplace. (It does not own Evergreen Health Care Center, the Missoula nursing home that just made it onto a federal list of the nation’s 54 worst nursing homes.) All told, according to its website, the Goodman Group owns 29 nursing homes and senior facilities in seven states, along with apartment complexes, a travel company, a line of herbal products and a full-service spa.

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While the dispute over the state wage add-on wound its way through the arbitration process, an effort to get rid of the Hillside union altogether took shape. Employees representing 30 percent of the Hillside union filed a decertification petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees complaints and elections concerning federal labor laws. In a decertification election, says Richard Ahearn, regional director at the NLRB’s Seattle office, all employees in the union’s bargaining unit cast a secret ballot to decide whether to retain the union as their liaison with their employer, or to dissolve the union.

Employees voted 23-15 against the union on July 18, just five days before Arbitrator Corbett ordered that employees were entitled to receive raises and back pay from Hillside. But a week later, Local 427 objected to the election on five points, arguing that Hillside management had improperly affected the election outcome by monitoring workers while they voted, making promises that pay would improve without the union presence, coercing employee votes and misrepresenting the ongoing issue of the state wage add-on. Hillside management rebutted each of the union’s complaints, maintaining that the union couldn’t prove its complaints well enough to overturn the election.

In October a NLRB judge ordered the election to be set aside. Although most of the union’s complaints failed, the judge found that a Hillside manager had escorted several employees to the voting booth and waited for them to cast their ballot before walking them back to their workstations. He wrote in his decision that the impact was “sufficient to have materially affected the outcome of the election,” and consequently concluded that Hillside Manor “engaged in objectionable conduct warranting that the election be set aside.”

The decision to overturn the election speaks volumes about the conduct of Hillside’s management, says Thiel, Local 427’s attorney, explaining that it’s very difficult to get a vote set aside.

“I’ve never seen election conduct like this in my 20 years of being involved with unions,” he says. I think the conduct of escorting employees to the voting booth and waiting for them to vote is just so egregious.”

With the next election scheduled for Dec. 19, Hoffman and Anderlik say the union has a better chance of winning now that an objective third party—the arbitrator—ruled that Hillside wrongly withheld a raise from its employees. And while the wage issue may be settled, they say it’s a crucial example of the union’s value to its employees.

“If there was no union, people would not have seen that wage increase and the Goodman Group would still be pocketing that money from the state,” says Anderlik. “There’s no question about it.”

While Hillside managers or lawyers would not comment for this story, to some extent, its actions and arguments reflected in public legal documents serve to elucidate its positions. Anderlik says a confidential handbook produced for the Goodman Group that recently showed up unexpectedly in the union office illustrates the company’s anti-union sentiments. The handbook, which was prepared this summer by one of the nation’s largest firms specializing in labor and employment law, details ways that managers at Hillside can legally undermine the union.

“It is Goodman Group’s goal to become union free,” the handbook says in its introduction. “We have dealt with unions and do not see how union representation has helped our employees or improved patient care.”

The handbook directs managers to encourage anti-union attitudes at Hillside. “Unfortunately, ‘preventative unionism’ is as much a part of your job as providing good health care service,” it says. “As a supervisor, there are many things you can do that will substantially increase the possibility of union decertification at your facility and place you in the best possible position to help defeat the union.” It goes on to explain how supervisors should counter union recruitment tactics by reminding employees that unionization doesn’t mean they’ll get better wages or benefits and that they might lose their jobs in the event of a union strike.

Anderlik recognizes that employers have the right to resist unions, but says its attention to the issue shows that it’s threatened by a union that advocates strongly for its workers. He’s publicized the handbook as part of the union’s campaign for the Dec. 19 election, and says it will help the union cause: “A lot of the workers at Hillside see they’re spending so much money on lawyers. How much of that money could they use for wage increases or providing better care for the residents?” he asks.

For Hoffman, one of the longest-serving employees at Hillside, the handbook exemplifies the increasing aggression of the management toward its employees. “There have always been conflicts between management and the union, but I think it’s more so than in the past,” she says. “They’re more into union-busting activities than they used to be.”

Born in Butte to a teamster at the Anaconda Company, Hoffman’s support for unions runs deep. But Hoffman says it’s her recent experiences with Hillside that have really shown her why struggling workers like herself need the union.

“We care for our residents like they’re family, but we also have our own families we have to look out for and support at home,” Hoffman says. “And because of the union, we have more of a voice so that we can be heard.”
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