A federal hearing officer has rejected Allina Health's challenge to a unionization vote by doctors at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids and Fridley.

The officer's 68-page recommendation to the National Labor Relations Board argues that Allina had failed to prove that two pro-union doctors were supervisors, and that a third had used her supervisory clout to influence others.

Allina "failed to establish that [the doctors] engaged in objectionable pro-union conduct," according to the ruling, issued late last week.

Allina responded Monday with a motion to delay proceedings and give its leaders more time to decide whether to appeal the ruling. A statement from the health system Wednesday said officials were "disappointed" by the decision, "but remain steadfast in our support for our physicians and their well-being."

Barring a successful appeal, the recommendation would empower the New York-based Doctors Council to exclusively represent Mercy's full- and part-time doctors and pursue negotiations.

Dr. Alia Sharif, a Mercy hospitalist who spearheaded the union drive, said the health system should "recognize and accept this change."

Sixty-seven Allina-employed doctors voted in March to unionize while 38 opposed the move. Allina initially challenged 30 ballots, but 10 were validated and the remainder weren't enough to change the outcome.

"The physicians have spoken and they have a voice now," Sharif said. "The election result will be the same, challenged 10 times over."

The recommendation came days before the start of voting Thursday by hundreds of Allina outpatient doctors and other clinicians on whether to unionize. Their separate drive could result in one of the largest groups of unionized doctors in the United States.

COVID-19 has had a pivotal influence on the union movement. Doctors said the vote likely wouldn't have happened without the pandemic, which forced Allina and other health systems to lean on their providers at times to work excessive hours, rely on limited protective gear, and treat a challenging and infectious patient population.

COVID also heightened financial challenges for Allina, leaving it in poor position to cede control to doctors or pay for resulting contract demands. The health system lost $122 million on operations this spring, according to its most recent quarterly financial statement.

Sharif was one of the three doctors accused of being a supervisor and exerting undue influence on others. She serves on an advisory council that recommends practices for Mercy's hospitalists — doctors who care for patients while they are admitted to hospital beds. Most of the doctors who voted were hospitalists.

The hearing officer disagreed with the accusation, finding that the council on which Sharif serves "is, at bottom, an advisory mechanism" and that "its decision making authority is circumscribed by Allina Health policies."

The officer also noted that Allina's antiunion campaign of emails, fliers and meetings with high-level executives "would have mitigated any pro-union conduct" if the doctors theoretically had any coercive influence over colleagues.

The officer found that one pro-union physician, Dr. Sarah Schoel, had potential influence over others as chief of staff for the hospital and chair of the hospital's medical education committee. However, the ruling noted that most of her union lobbying occurred after she was no longer chief of staff and was directed at colleagues over whom she held no direct supervisory authority.