Rio Rancho hospital workers seek the right to form a union

Nurse testifies that the UNM facility is relying on a legal loophole to prevent workers from organizing

By: - January 26, 2022 4:55 am

The front entrance to the UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center located in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

Hospital workers in Rio Rancho are one step closer to overcoming their bosses’ objections to forming a union.

Senate Bill 41 would expand the definition of a public-sector worker to include 600 health care workers at the University of New Mexico Sandoval Regional Medical Center, who want to form a union but say they have no legal right to do so under state law. 

They’re the only health care workers in the state who can’t form a union, according to Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque), a co-sponsor of the measure.

“Paradoxically, they’re also the only public health workers in the state who can strike, because they’re not being treated as public employees under the Public Employee Bargaining Act,” Stewart said.

Lawmakers found the bill to be germane on Jan. 19 and the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee on Monday voted 5-1 along party lines to pass it.

Adrienne Enghouse, a registered nurse at the hospital, told the committee that hospital officials have used a loophole in state law to deny health care workers there the right to unionize, even though they’ve cared for the sick during the pandemic.

“When we stand up and ask for our right to be recognized, the University of New Mexico once again is standing against the people of New Mexico,” Enghouse said.

Jamie Silva-Steele, president and CEO of Sandoval Regional Medical Center, told the Albuquerque Journal that the hospital opposes the formation of a union because state law treats it as a private company rather than a public entity.

Ashley Long, president of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge 794, said she supports reinforcing that the workers at the hospital are public employees.

“Health care workers have been on the frontlines since day one during this pandemic and I think it’s just a small ask to support their right to unionize,” she said.

Whitney Holland, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, said all New Mexicans should have the right to unionize, and state statute should not stand in their way.

“As we’ve all experienced during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, our classrooms and health care settings have been placed under unprecedented pressures,” Holland said. “We believe Senate Bill 41 will help to alleviate some of those pressures for our health care professionals at Sandoval Regional Medical Center.”

Standing together

Other unions supported the measure in committee, including New Mexico Federation of Labor, the Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation Labor Union, AFSCME Council 18 and the New Mexico Building Construction & Trades Council.

‘Very unintended consequence’

The Legislature in 1989 passed the University Research Park and Economic Development Act, Stewart said. At the time, there was no Public Employee Bargaining Act, but the law anticipated public-sector workers.

However, the statute does not explicitly put “research park corporations” like the Rio Rancho hospital under the authority of the Public Employee Bargaining Act, which was passed three years later in 1992.

“I believe it was a very unintended consequence, to leave that out,” Stewart said.

Shane Youtz, a labor attorney, told the committee the workers are in a unique position because in the middle of a pandemic, at a very important public hospital in the state, they could strike.

“And that is contrary to the policy of the state of New Mexico, as set out in the Public Employees Bargaining Act,” he said. “This law simply fixes this historical error.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.