SCHENECTADY — The union trying to organize the lowest-paid employees of Ellis Medicine held a rally Wednesday outside Ellis Hospital and accused the health care organization of employing anti-union tactics.
The union, 1199SEIU, has lodged a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging coercive actions and the firing of an Ellis employee who was helping to unionize about 700 workers in Ellis Medicine-operated facilities.
Wednesday’s rally was an attempt to raise public awareness of the situation and boost public support for the union.
Former Ellis employee Yvonne Hinson (left) speaks to union organizers during a rally held by 1199SEIU outside Ellis Hospital on Wednesday. (John Cropley)
Yvonne Hinson, of Schenectady, said Ellis fired her shortly after giving her a raise from $11 an hour to $13.25, and almost immediately after seeing she had joined the union organizing committee.
“I met up with the union,” she said. “Then they fired me.”
Hinson, who brought meals to patients in their rooms, said the official reason for her firing was disrespect to a patient, but she never received a write-up. She was employed at Ellis only from April 19 to July 14 and hasn’t found another job. She’d like to go back to her former job, she said.
Wednesday’s rally was a low-key affair, with none of the giant inflatable rats or bullhorns seen and heard at some union protests. A few Schenectady police officers stopped by and left without exiting their cars. A cluster of hospital security personnel watched from a slight incline.
In a telling detail, it was a union rally, not an employee rally. Whether because of disinterest or fear, there apparently were no current Ellis employees on the Nott Street sidewalk — almost everyone there was connected to the union, and many arrived on charter buses.
Mark Bergen, vice president of new organizing for 1199SEIU, said this was due to an atmosphere of intimidation created by Ellis. Specifically, Bergen said, Ellis has “militarized” its campus with armed guards and "attack dogs" and distributed literature raising the specter of deportation for foreign-born employees.
So employees were afraid to join the rally, Bergen said, which he can understand.
“Not that we accept that,” he added.
The union has initiated a complaint with the NLRB over Ellis’ actions; That complaint is pending and is being handled by the NLRB’s Buffalo office.
“We’re pretty sure we’re going to prevail,” Bergen said.
In response to the allegations raised by the union and its supporters, Ellis released a written statement:
“Ellis Medicine employees are recognized for the extraordinarily high quality medical care they provide every day, and Ellis Medicine offers competitive wages and benefits to attract and retain the very best employees. Our culture of teamwork, openness and continuous improvement keeps Ellis strong for our patients, our employees and our community. We respect both our employees’ rights and their good judgment as to whether joining a labor union is in their best interests and that of the people we serve.”
Ellis did not directly address the allegations made by 1199SEIU.
The union complaint about attack dogs was apparently a reference to a Czech-born German Shepherd named Cargo that has been part of the security team for two years. The canine's presence predates the current labor campaign.
Another union complaint, that Ellis is hiring an anti-labor law firm to block the union’s organization efforts with money that could be used for pay raises, is apparently a reference to the lawyers defending Ellis in the NLRB matter.
The issue of low salaries is a recurring theme in the union’s efforts. Organizers with 1199SEIU say Ellis is contributing to Schenectady’s high child poverty rate by not paying a living wage to its service employees. Further, the union said, Ellis’ Form 990 filings — the disclosure that tax-exempt non-profit entities must file — show that Ellis is in fact posting a profit and returning almost nothing to the community it serves.
The Form 990 Ellis filed for 2015, the most recent available, shows 7.3 percent of its expenses were for financial assistance and other community benefits. But most of that was for Medicaid-related and health professionals' education costs. Only 0.06 percent was for community health improvement services and community benefit operations, the union noted, and only 0.4 percent went to subsidized health services.
The same form shows Ellis was only 1.1 percent in the black for 2015, with $400.7 million in expenses and $405.1 million in revenue.
Ellis on Wednesday defended its financial status with the following prepared statement:
“Ellis Medicine’s contribution to the community is in its 3,300-plus jobs, $215 million in annual payroll, $132 million in annual spending for supplies, and $6 million in charity care provided annually, which together far exceed whatever it might pay in property taxes.
“Ellis’ designation as a tax-exempt organization, meanwhile, is based on the nature of vital services it provides to the community and the millions of dollars of community benefit that Ellis provides to our region annually in the form of uncompensated medical care, charity medical care, and health and wellness education.
“Ellis reinvests any nominal profit it produces each year back into its operations and facilities in order to provide safe, innovative, high-quality medical care to the community.”
The union gained some support from beyond its ranks at Wednesday’s rally, drawing horn honks from a few passing motorists and solidarity from a few speakers.
County Legislators Philip Fields and Rory Furman both backed the right to unionize.
Fields said there are two communities in Schenectady: One that has benefited from a billion dollars worth of economic development and thousands of new jobs, and one that has not.
He said Ellis is not to blame for this divide, but it could help narrow it by paying better wages.
“They’re like the lowest bottom wage of the hospital,” he said of service workers.
The question of whether the unionization effort started internally with hospital employees or externally with the union is irrelevant, Fields added, because service employees should have access to the same rights and protections as their unionized colleagues on the nursing staff.
“Their eyes have been opened to the truth,” he said.
The Rev. Emily McNeill, of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, said she too was there to support the right to organize and bargain collectively.
Another speaker, the Rev. Sara Baron, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Schenectady, had the most succinct take on the rally: Ellis service workers take care of the community and Ellis should take care of them.