SPH could lay off medical transcriptionists

Five employees working as medical transcriptionists at South Peninsula Hospital could lose their jobs if the hospital follows through with subcontracting their work to a Lower 48 company. Teamsters Local 959 challenged the proposed layoff by filing a grievance, later denied by the hospital.

In a Nov. 28, 2017, letter sent to Barbara Huff Tuckness, business representative for Teamsters Local 959, Anchorage, by Mike Dinges, SPH Employee and Labor Relations Manager, Dinges notified the union that the hospital intended to lay off five transcriptionists effective Dec. 31. Huff Tuckness said in a phone interview Monday that the hospital has moved the layoff date to Feb. 28, although no actual layoff notices have yet been sent. Under the collective bargaining agreement between the Teamsters and SPH, the hospital must give employees a two-week layoff notice.

“It’s become rather convoluted at this point,” Huff Tuckness said. “I’m hoping that as we have proposed we can keep the employees working with the new system out there, as they originally said they would do.”

She referred to an earlier discussion a year ago with hospital officials regarding the use of voice-recognition technology to do away with medical transcription. Some physicians and other health care workers record medical information that transcriptionists then type into written documents.

New technology allows doctors to record information that computer programs then convert into text — the same concept behind voice-to-text software in many cell phones.

Hospital spokesperson Derotha Ferraro wrote in an email that “as government payer regulations evolve, we have to adapt our practices to follow.”

“Just as other industries utilize technology, we, as an organization, must embrace change (including technology) if it is necessary to support best practice and compliance,” she wrote.

In a letter to the South Peninsula Hospital Board of Directors Huff Tuckness read at its monthly meeting last Wednesday, Jan. 24, she said when the hospital raised the possibility of moving to voice-recognition systems, she met with officials regarding the new technology and the impact on union employees.

“We wanted to make sure that the employees were protected from any last-minute decisions that could impact their jobs and their ability to provide for their families,” she wrote.

The Teamsters want to present options for transitioning to the new technology, such as a hybrid of old and new tech, as well as severance packages, placement into vacant positions and retraining.

“We felt it only fair to treat employees, who have served this hospital above and beyond the call of duty, with the utmost dignity and respect,” Huff Tuckness wrote.

Huff Tuckness said that at the time she was told the medical transcriptionists should not worry, that their jobs aren’t in jeopardy. She said former chief executive officer Bob Letson told her the hospital had no intention of laying off the transcriptionists.

“And here we are with a totally different set of circumstances,” she said.

In that same letter, Huff Tuckness said that medical transcription work would be subcontracted to MModal, a Franklin, Tennessee, company. The five medical transcriptionists earn an average of $20 an hour, with benefits, she said. All of the employees work part time, Ferraro wrote, with one at 80-percent full-time, three at half-time and one working casual hours.

In a grievance challenging the layoffs, Huff Tuckness wrote, “The Employer has control of private patient information/notes, and the employees are local, live actively in the community, pay taxes, buy goods and services, and promote growth within the city of Homer. Local control and local employees are a win for the patients, doctors, hospital, and the local community.”

Ferraro said in general the hospital has added positions since 2010, doubling the payroll then to its current one of $27 million. Since 2014, the total number of employees has grown from 380 to 451.

Huff Tuckness sent the grievance on Dec. 13 to Shelly Allain, then chief human resources officer. On Monday Huff Tuckness said the grievance had been denied.

Ferraro said the hospital considers union grievances to be a personnel matter. Citing confidentiality of human resources issues, she said the hospital could not comment on the proposed layoffs or grievance. She said personnel matters are kept confidential “out of respect for the employees involved.”

“Since the process has yet to be exhausted in this case, the union by its actions has chosen to betray that confidentiality and the integrity of our grievance process,” Ferraro wrote. “Therefore, I am not at liberty to disclose information around this topic.”

The Teamsters asserts that the hospital should have followed Article 1.05 of the collective bargaining unit between the hospital and union employees that covers subcontracting. That says, “In the event subcontracting of work normally performed by bargaining unit members is considered, a cost analysis shall be conducted.”

“We’re arguing they should have used the subcontracting section of the contract, which would have required them to do a cost saving analysis and take that to the board,” Huff Tuckness said.

Instead, in its layoff notification the hospital cited another section of the agreement, Article 2.06, Layoff. In her grievance letter, Huff Tuckness said the hospital purposely avoided the subcontracting section of the agreement “which reiterates the Employer and the Union’s recognition of the importance of maintaining the stability and integrity of the bargaining unit.” Ferraro wrote, “If and when we do need to shift or change employee responsbilites as a result, we are attentive to mitigate negative impact and help existing employees find new responsibilites or a new role in the organization.”

“It is no secret that recruitment is one of our number one challenges,” Ferraro added, “so retaining our existing employees is a key strategy to our organization.”

Huff Tuckness said the Teamsters have now sent the denied grievance to its legal department and will take the case to arbitration.

Reach Michael Armstrong at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.