PeaceHealth workers in Bellingham threaten 1-day strike over wages, benefits

PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham.
PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald

Hundreds of workers at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center could go on a one-day strike Wednesday, May 13, saying they are frustrated by stagnating wages and rising health-care costs.

The workers are members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, which represents support and tech staff that total as many as 900 workers. They gave their strike notice to PeaceHealth in Bellingham on Friday, May 1.

If the strike happens, the employees would walk out at 6 a.m. for 25 hours, meaning until 6:59 a.m. the following day.

Workers who could go on strike include nursing assistants, lab technicians, dietary staff, unit secretaries and hospital housekeeping, according to the union.

The employees voted September 2013 to join the union. They said they’ve been trying to negotiate their first contract with PeaceHealth St. Joseph for more than 18 months, without success.

Savita Kashyap, a certified nursing assistant on the bargaining team, said they’re willing to sit down with PeaceHealth in the days leading up to the walkout.

“We are still open if management brings anything to our table,” said Kashyap, a 19-year employee who said they’re struggling to get good benefits and wages.

PeaceHealth also said it was willing to continue to talk.

“We are disappointed that SEIU chose to strike rather than continue negotiating toward a tentative agreement. We are hopeful to return to the bargaining table soon,” said Beverly Mayhew, spokeswoman for PeaceHealth.

Nurses and doctors wouldn’t be among those going on strike, which would occur primarily among those working at the hospital.

“We are prepared and will continue to provide the quality of care through this work stoppage that our community expects of us,” Mayhew said. “We have plans in place to prevent disruption in service at the medical center.”

Employees said they want wage increases that keep up with the cost of living and health benefits, especially for families, and allow them to afford care at the Bellingham hospital where they work.

They said that several workers have been taken to collections or had their wages garnished because they couldn’t pay for health care at the hospital.

And, they said, PeaceHealth made $40 million in profit in 2013 among its operations in three states but failed to invest it in what they called “frontline caregivers” and Whatcom County.

“In my mind they’ve had plenty of notice to put this to rest. They’re not giving us any other choice when we’re trying to stand up for conditions in the hospital, whether that be for the patients or the workers,” said Brian Wyss, an anesthesia tech who has worked at PeaceHealth for 15 years and is on the bargaining team.

“Our county deserves most of this profit because we live here,” Kashyap added.

The workers also accused PeaceHealth of unfair labor practices, which the medical provider denied.

For its part, PeaceHealth said the wages and benefits provided to all of its caregivers are competitive.

“They are reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that they are within the parameters we’ve established for market position and internal equity,” Mayhew said.

Meanwhile, workers said they’re hoping for a resolution in the coming days.

“The sense I get from the bargaining team is no one wants to walk out,” Wyss said. “We’d rather get an agreement and show up to work on that day than walk out.”

PeaceHealth is a not-for-profit health care system with medical centers, hospitals, medical group clinics and laboratories in Washington state as well as Alaska and Oregon.