About 300 Dominican Hospital employees picketed outside of the facility throughout the day on Feb. 20 to demand a settled union contract with Dignity Health, the nonprofit company that owns the hospital. Protesters urged that an agreement be reached before Dignity Health starts a merger with Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI), one of the largest nonprofit health care service providers in the nation.

“This company [CHI] that they’re merging with has been known to undermine workers and not really put forth the effort or maintain the quality of care for our communities,” said Dominican Hospital employee Kevin Barraza.

Like 645 other Dominican Hospital employees in Santa Cruz, Barraza is a member of Service Employees International Union- United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW). About 15,000 of Dignity Health’s workers across California are members of SEIU- UHW. Their current contract with Dignity Health expires April 1, 2018. Now workers are pushing to settle a new contract before the merger is reviewed and finalized.

However, it’s not certain if, after the merger, the new entity will recognize any contract settled between Dignity Health and SEIU- UHW.

Protesters stand outside Dominican Hospital Tuesday in support of Service Employees International Union-United Workers West contract negotiations. Photo by Bryana Espinoza.

The protest at Dominican Hospital was one of many taking place statewide at various locations owned by Dignity Health between Feb. 20 and March 7. Protests scheduled for Feb. 21 and 22 across California were canceled because Dignity Health requested a meeting with SEIU-UHW to discuss a contract agreement. According to Sean Wherley, media relations director of

SEIU-UHW, if an agreement is not met during that meeting on Feb. 23, protests will resume.

Protesters at Dominican Hospital voiced concerns over future downsizing of staff and the effect this could have on the quality of patient care at Dominican Hospital.

“We’re out here today to protect patient care. As hospital employees, patient care is obviously really important to all of us. […] A lot of us have families that we support and depend on us,” said Dominican Hospital employee Estefana Capetillo.

Dignity Health initially announced the merger with CHI in December last year. Since then, workers at Dignity Health facilities like Dominican Hospital raised questions about CHI’s past. Many, like Capetillo, are worried because CHI laid off 3,000 employees in 2017 across the 18 states they are located in.

However, in a Feb. 20 statement by Dignity Health regarding bargaining with SEIU-UHW, the company said it does not expect a mass elimination of jobs and plans on keeping up communication with its employees to work toward a fair agreement.

“With no geographic overlap in hospital service areas, we will have a stronger operational and financial foundation as a combined organization and do not anticipate any significant impact to local jobs in our service areas as a result of the combination with Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI),” Dignity Health said in the statement.

The federal government needs to review the merger, so it is unclear when it would begin. Future protests by SEIU-UHW are on hold statewide, as they wait on negotiations with Dignity Health this week.