Fired worker rehired at Tri-Cities Community Health

PASCO -- Tri-Cities Community Health in Pasco is rehiring a fired worker after the National Labor Relations Board determined the agency engaged in unfair labor practices by firing her.

The Herald learned Thursday that the attorney representing the clinic, formerly known as Community Health Center La Clinica, signed a settlement with the labor board the day before agreeing to reinstate the employee with back pay.

The settlement stems from a complaint filed in January by the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 8, which represents more than 100 workers at the clinic, after clinic employee Maria Cisneros told union representatives she had been removed from the union and then fired.

Joel Hughes, a consultant who is serving as the clinic's interim financial officer, confirmed the labor board had found the clinic moved Cisneros from a union job to a non-union job without telling the union, and then fired her.

"We kind of screwed up in that process," Hughes said.

The management at Tri-Cities Community Health and OPEIU negotiators have been at odds for a year and a half as they attempt to negotiate a new contract to replace one that expired in March 2010.

Union members in June voted to prepare for a strike after clinic management proposed an indefinite wage freeze, pay cut and increased health premiums for workers.

Hughes said the clinic expects to lose $1.6 million from its $14 million operating budget as the result of state budget cuts, and likely will face more losses as state agencies prepare for more cuts by the end of the year.

The clinic proposed to make up part of the lost $1.6 million by laying off the equivalent of 15 full-time employees to save $500,000; increasing the amount employees pay for insurance from 13 percent to 20 percent of premiums for a $370,000 savings; and a 3 percent across-the-board salary cut for everyone except medical providers and dentists to save about $300,000.

He said the clinic also is working on ideas to be more efficient and increase the number of patients seen in an attempt to bring in more money.

"But that will take time," Hughes told the Herald.

Union representatives said the union has offered $600,000 in economic concessions through contract negotiations, but questions the board's decision to spend money on Hughes' employer, Community Link Consulting, and the management's refusal to make cuts to clinic administration while asking workers for sacrifices.

In addition to Cisneros' inappropriate firing, the union's complaint to the labor board also claimed two clinic managers told employees not to talk about the union on work time and "interrogated an employee about the employee's contacts with the union," labor board documents said.

The complaint also alleges that a clinic manager made coercive statements to Cisneros about her contacts with the union before firing her Dec. 17, 2010.

Labor board documents said the clinic's conduct was interfered with employees' rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

Hughes said the clinic has no plans to fight the labor board's determination that the clinic committed unfair labor practices and is reinstating Cisneros to a job that makes her once again a union member.

The clinic previously settled unfair labor practices charges in March 2010 after the union complained that clinic management had threatened employees with firings or layoffs if they didn't agree to reduce or eliminate benefits or get rid of the union, failed to negotiate new personnel policies with the union and didn't provide the union with information relevant to negotiating and enforcing the contract.

-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com