Chase Brexton workers approve first union contract, say relations with management have improved

Chase Brexton employees voted overwhelmingly Monday to approve their first contract under a union formed nearly 18 months ago amid a rancorous dispute with management over long work hours and other issues.

Employees said they thought the contract, which includes pay raises and a new scheduling system that allows them to spend more time with patients, addressed many of the grievances they had regarding working conditions. They also said a new CEO and other senior leadership have improved the relationship between management and rank-and-file employees, including doctors, psychologists and nurses.

The contract was ratified by 94 percent of the union members. The new union represents about 135 professional employees — mostly doctors, nurses and mental health professionals — at Chase Brexton, which employs a total of 417 workers.

“After a long and arduous negotiation process, we feel we have finally established a solid contract, which will improve the working environment and alleviate prior problems of staff burnout and poor staff retention at Chase Brexton,” said Donna Yaffe, a psychologist and 10-year Chase Brexton employee who was on the bargaining committee.

Chase Brexton CEO Patrick Mutch, who was hired after the union was organized, called the professional health workers the engine of the organization and hoped the new contract would better support their work.

“An important goal was to be able to get an agreement with the union because it would show that we could work together,” Mutch said.

The Chase Brexton workers voted to join the 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East union in the summer of 2016 amid strong resistance from management, led by then-CEO Richard Larison. The employees sought more say in the decision-making process at the chain of community health centers as they faced heavy patient loads and what some feared was a resulting decline in the quality of patient care.

The organizing efforts created tension at Chase Brexton between management and pro-union employees, who accused the nonprofit of unfair labor practices. Critics protested outside its Mount Vernon headquarters and signed a petition expressing disapproval of the way workers were being treated. Local politicians also weighed in, worried about the instability at what had been an anchor in the community for 40 years.

Larison chose not to renew his contract after the unionization and longtime hospital executive Mutch was hired to take his place. Mutch came in with the goals of improving operations, restoring confidence among doctors and other providers, improving Chase Brexton’s image in the community and building a more trusting culture.

Employees said Monday that Mutch is much more visible and communicative than previous leadership and that he and other senior staff seem more concerned with worker concerns.

Under the new contract, workers will have more of a say in the direction of the health center through a committee made up of staff and management that’s being set up as a forum to address concerns and talk about challenges facing the health center.

“Our providers are critical to the success of the organization and we want to collaborate so we can be a sustained and successful organization,” Mutch said.

Workers also will receive immediate 3 percent raises and next year they will get two raises: one in March and another in August. On top of the raises, some employees who had been underpaid based on their experience and education will get a salary adjustment. More than a quarter of the workforce qualifies for the adjustment, according to the union.

The contract creates more flexible scheduling for the doctors, psychologists and other providers by accounting for how many patients they are seeing on a monthly basis, and allowing them to reduce the number if they are reaching goals. It also allows management to increase the number if the provider isn’t reaching goals.

Workers who are not providers, including case managers, pharmacists, nurses and hygienists, will get an additional week of vacation. Dentists will get more administrative time for charting.

Del. Cory V. McCray, a Baltimore Democrat, called the ratification a “great step forward.” He was among a group of politicians who sent a letter to Chase Brexton leadership in 2016 concerned about the discontent of workers.

“The staff really loved their patients, but they needed help from the organization on working conditions,” he said. “I am glad the organization stepped up.”

Employees hope the contract will help with retention and hiring efforts, which they said had suffered in the last couple of years.

“I think the new administration really helped bring this along,” said Mindy Poorman, a nurse practitioner at Chase Brexton who served on the bargaining committee. “I think it is a great start and will help provide better patient care and address provider burnout.”

Chase Brexton started in 1978 as a place to serve gay men. Its legacy is a place that is welcoming and understanding to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, but has grown into a clinic that serves everyone. It saw an influx of patients under the Affordable Care Act.

Mulch said Chase Brexton still faces pressures, such as the uncertainty of the Affordable Care Act and drug prices.

“We can now focus on the big challenges together,” he said.

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

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