American Academy of Emergency Medicine

Labor Board Charges Third Coast with Unfair Labor Practices

The National Labor Relations Board has issued a formal legal complaint against Third Coast Emergency Physicians, P.A., alleging that it has been engaging in unfair labor practices prohibited by the federal labor laws. According to Martha Owen, the union's attorney, the Board's issuance of the complaint means that after investigating the union's allegations, the Board found that they were meritorious. The complaint is analogous to a lawsuit and will be heard by a federal administrative law judge.

The complaint, issued by the Board's Regional Office and dated December 29, 2000, states that Third Coast has violated federal labor law by refusing to bargain in good faith with the union over the terms and conditions of the physicians' employment. It also states that Third Coast illegally retaliated against its physician employees by eliminating a monetary bonus it had traditionally paid because the physicians voted to form the union. Additionally, the complaint states that Third Coast violated federal labor laws by failing to negotiate with the union over the bonus issue and failing to provide financial information to the union. This information includes individual physician collections and charges for billing services.

The emergency physicians began their unionizing efforts in late 1998, and won a representation election in the spring of 1999. They have been trying to reach a collective bargaining agreement with Third Coast ever since, a process which they say has been hampered by Third Coast's unfair labor practices. The physicians originally formed an independent union, but recently chose to affiliate with a national organization, the Physicians for Responsible Negotiation (PRN). PRN is a national, independent labor organization created specifically for physicians by the American Medical Association. John Calomeni, MD, one of the union representatives, stated that the local union decided to affiliate with PRN because it understands the values of the physician community and is committed to protecting medicine's high standards of ethics and professionalism. Physicians who join PRN agree not to strike or withhold essential medical services. However, in addition to traditional collective bargaining, they may participate in information pickets, non-disruptive public demonstrations, lobbying and publicity campaigns.

In addition to the unfair labor practices listed above, Third Coast is accused of engaging in a pattern of deceptive communications with its employees and threats to sue the union and its members in an apparent attempt to discredit the union and intimidate its members.

Recently, the union was forced to drop its original name (Seton Third Coast Emergency Physicians Association) because of threats of legal action by the company. The union dropped the name to avoid imminent legal action by the company and to avoid this legal expense. Subsequently, the company threatened to sue the union and its individual members for release of confidential information. However, the company has not provided the union with any specifically identified confidential material and has failed to specify what confidential material the union has disclosed. Presumably, they are referring to collection data and estimates of their net profit. The attorneys for the union believe these two claims are unfounded and appear to be meant to intimidate the union's members.

The union's efforts to obtain collection data and billing costs from the company appear to be one of the most contentious issues for the company. The company recently warned the employees in a letter that "The union has absolutely no legitimate claim to this data under the law, and that will be our position through as many hearings or appeals as it takes." They noted that this was likely to be a very long and expensive process. This is despite the fact that the NLRB agents have found that the union is entitled to this information.

"Clearly, the company is willing to go to extraordinary means to prevent the employed physicians from knowing how much is collected from their patients and to keep them from verifying the union's estimate of the profit that the company takes from its physicians for staffing the emergency departments at Seton and Seton Northwest. This estimate is 1.75 million dollars! There is no other legitimate reason to withhold this information from the employees," commented union representative John Calomeni, MD FAAEM.

The union of physicians in Austin is the first one in the country composed strictly of Emergency Medicine physicians. The American Academy of Emergency Medicine has been closely following the events taking place at Seton, and supports the changes in the practice of Emergency Medicine that are sought by the union.