Chase Brexton Health Care workers troubled over what they say are longer work days, heavy patient loads and the elimination of crucial staff training programs voted overwhelmingly Thursday to form a union.
The final vote was 87-9 after 15 votes were challenged and not counted, according to leaders with 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East labor union. The vote still needs to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board.
The leadership at Chase Brexton, which opposed the unionization effort, declined to comment Thursday, saying it would put out a statement Friday.
"I think the workers at Chase Brexton sent a clear message that patient care matters and they are willing to fight for it," said Brian Owens, a lead SEIU organizer.
Some Chase Brexton employees sought to form a union to have more say in the decision-making that affects their workplace. They complained about a rapid increase in the number of patients they treat and what they describe as a decline in the quality of care as they spend less time with patients.
Donna Yaffe, a psychologist and behavioral medicine lead clinician who has worked at Chase Brexton for more than eight years, voted yes because she wants to see worker conditions improve.
"I voted for the union because there has been a history over the last three years of providers' inability to have a say in the decision-making at Chase Brexton, and that has adversely affected staff wellness and patient care," Yaffe said.
The organizing efforts have created a contentious environment at the Baltimore-based chain of health care centers. Management and pro-union employees have accused each other of engaging in unfair labor practices and using scare tactics to get employees to support or oppose the union.
The board of directors at Chase Brexton Health Care asked the National Labor Relations Board earlier this week to postpone the vote and accused some of its own managers of encouraging formation of the union with the help of union leaders. This came a week after the SEIU, in a separate complaint with the NLRB, accused Chase Brexton of firing five managers to intimidate employees thinking of unionizing.
Executives at Chase Brexton contend that the organization can work with employees to address their concerns. Chase Brexton also appointed a president of operations and said it will form a committee of board members, employees and providers to look at workplace issues.
Marijke Sutter, a medication adherence nurse who has worked at Chase Brexton for six years, said she appreciated the outreach efforts executives have made in the last week, including a visit by the board chair.
In the end, however, Sutter voted to form the union because she felt it would give employees a larger voice.
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"Where has the board president been for the last four years?" she asked.
"It remains to be seen in the future if this outreach will last when the vote is over," Sutter added. "Was this outreach to sway the union vote or was it genuine?"
Chase Brexton opened in 1978 as a clinic for gay men. It has seen an influx of new patients under the Affordable Care Act, which put more people on the insurance rolls. It moved its headquarters to the Monumental Life Building on Charles Street in 2013 and recently expanded its Glen Burnie location. It also has offices in Columbia, Randallstown, Easton and at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
While it is known for catering to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Chase Brexton has been trying to position itself as a clinic that serves everyone. It served nearly 10,000 Medicaid recipients last year, according to the state health department.
The labor dispute resulted in a protest at the health center headquarters last week. It also prompted an online petition on change.org demanding that the fired workers be reinstated and Chase Brexton stop interfering with union organizing. Fifteen members of Baltimore's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly also sent a letter to Chase Brexton CEO Richard Larison criticizing the firings, which they linked to the union vote.