SAN FRANCISCO -- An administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board ruled this week that Sutter Health engaged in unfair labor practices during recent contract talks at its Antioch hospital, including unilaterally cutting paid sick leave and eliminating paid health care coverage for part-time registered nurses.
While negotiating a new contract with its nurses when their contract expired in August 2011, Sutter Delta Medical Center officials told the union that talks would be different than in the past because of Affordable Care Act reforms, which would "significantly decrease revenue."
But, according to court documents, there were a lot of unknowns in how much revenue would drop. Sutter denied the union's April 2012 request for more information, saying it was not relevant for collective bargaining.
Judge Jay Pollack ruled Tuesday that Sutter was obligated to provide that information since it was "reasonably necessary" for negotiations. Also, he said there was "no valid impasse when (Sutter) declared impasse ... and no valid impasse when (Sutter) unilaterally imposed terms and conditions from its last, best and final offer."
A Sutter Delta spokeswoman said the company plans to fight the decision.
"We do not agree with the decision. We think we did nothing wrong and are exploring our options, including filing an appeal," Angela Lombardi said. Under the ruling, Sutter must rescind any unilateral changes made on Sept. 30, 2012, and "make whole" employees for any losses plus interest, Pollack said in the ruling. Union officials said that affects about 300 registered nurses.
Sutter has 21 days from the court's order to show it is complying.
Meanwhile, the nurses said they were thrilled by the ruling.
"We feel that we were vindicated," said Fernando Losada, the union's collective bargaining director. "The changes that they implemented without bargaining are very drastic."
Sutter imposed a contract that bumped up the minimum number of work hours a nurse needed classified as regular part-time from 20 to 30 hours per week. Regular part-time nurses are eligible to receive health benefits, while those under the 30-hour threshold received per diem benefits.
"Employers across the country and at various Sutter tables are trying to use the Affordable Care Act as the reason they need to make these kind of cuts. I would think the opposite, that it will benefit them," Losada said.
Sutter contends the parties were at impasse on April 25, 2012, and it never stated during bargaining that its proposals were based on health-care reform, according to the ruling.
The decision comes as negotiations between nurses and management continue at several South Bay and East Bay hospitals.
"It gives us a mandate to continue. Hopefully, they read the tea leaves from this decision, and it establishes a precedent," Losada said.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.