Union, PeaceHealth continue to negotiate as strike day approaches

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

PeaceHealth and the union representing up to 900 workers at its hospital and labs in Bellingham are continuing to wrangle over a new three-year contract — days out from a 25-hour strike set to begin Wednesday, May 13.

The workers are members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, which represents support and tech staff.

Both sides talked until 4:45 a.m. Friday, May 8. They took a break after 18 hours of negotiations, deciding that “the remaining gaps were too significant to close on Friday,” PeaceHealth wrote in a message to workers.

PeaceHealth said it will continue to negotiate, while preparing for the strike.

“The medical center is prepared to continue normal operations for the day and to ensure the safety of patients, their families and our caregivers. That is our focus every day and the strike will not change that,” said Beverly Mayhew, spokeswoman for PeaceHealth.

A member of the bargaining team said the union also remained open to negotiations.

“We’re still hopeful that we’ll come to a conclusion and not have to strike. We’re waiting for them to come back to the table,” said Anita Claymore, who has been a housekeeper at PeaceHealth for four years.

There was no indication Friday that negotiations would occur over the weekend.

If the strike happens, the employees would walk out at 6 a.m. Wednesday 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.

Nurses and doctors wouldn’t be among those taking part in the walkout, which would occur primarily among those SEIU Healthcare 1199NW members working at the hospital.

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.

The workers said they were frustrated by stagnating wages, rising health-care costs and under-staffing.

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

PeaceHealth is preparing for the strike by hiring workers through an agency. That agency requires a three-day contract — “at considerable expense to PeaceHealth,” according to a PeaceHealth Q&A.

PeaceHealth declined to name the agency or how much it was going to spend on the three-day contract.

Citing the three-day requirement, PeaceHealth told striking employees they couldn’t come back to work for three days. That’s even the case for employees who aren’t scheduled to work the day of the strike, according to the Q&A.

Both sides said they hope to reach a settlement and avoid a strike.

“We’ve let management know that we are willing to negotiate to the very last minute,” Claymore said. “Our caregivers do not want to leave their patients behind.”