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PeaceHealth workers go on strike over wages and benefits

Hundreds of workers at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center and its labs went on strike in Bellingham on Wednesday, May 13, after a breakdown in negotiations over wages and health benefits for a three-year contract. The employees are members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW.
Hundreds of workers at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center and its labs went on strike in Bellingham on Wednesday, May 13, after a breakdown in negotiations over wages and health benefits for a three-year contract. The employees are members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW. The Bellingham Herald

Hundreds of workers at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center and its labs went on strike Wednesday, May 13, after a breakdown in negotiations over wages and health benefits for a three-year contract.

The employees are members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, which represents support and tech staff that total about 900 workers.

They will walk out at 6 a.m. for 25 hours, meaning until 6:59 a.m. the following day.

Striking workers likely will be out longer. PeaceHealth is preparing for the walkout by hiring temporary workers through an agency that requires a minimum three-day contract, according to the health care provider. Citing that requirement, PeaceHealth has told striking employees that they can’t come back to work for three days. That’s the case even for those who aren’t scheduled to work the day of the strike.

“PeaceHealth did threaten to lock us out of our work, which we do know is illegal,” said Clarence Holmes, a senior lab assistant in the specimen management department who has been working at PeaceHealth for nearly three years and is a member of the bargaining team.

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

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

Both sides said Tuesday that they were willing to negotiate still, but blamed the other side for the stalemate.

“PeaceHealth wanted to negotiate today,” PeaceHealth spokeswoman Beverly Mayhew said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, the terms the union put forward for a negotiation session today were untenable, and we could not agree, especially with a strike looming.”

Those conditions included allowing the 30-plus members of the bargaining team who were working to be “released from work with no notice and without any agreement about time parameters for the talks,” Mayhew added.

That’s because the bargaining team would need to attend negotiations to make any sort of decision, Holmes said.

“It really is a first for them to not release caregivers to meet for bargaining,” he said. “The offer is out there for them. We’ve reached out and our phones are on and we’re ready to meet with them any time. No caregiver wants to walk out and have to take this action.”

Employees voted in 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.

Mayhew said the two sides have held about 40 bargaining sessions and until an 18-hour session last week, “SEIU has made very little forward progress, offering virtually no substantive counter proposals.”

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

They 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.

Improving wages and benefits also are necessary for attracting and retaining workers, they said, noting that PeaceHealth, a not-for-profit health care provider, made $50 million systemwide last year and should reinvest that toward care in this community.

To which Mayhew replied: “It’s important for PeaceHealth to maintain a positive bottom line, and the revenue-over-expenses figure is not unreasonable for an organization of PeaceHealth’s size, one with daily expenses that are approximately $1 million a day. All margins are reinvested in the community through capital improvements, equipment and, most recently, significant investments in electronic medical records.”

PeaceHealth has medical centers, hospitals, medical group clinics and laboratories in Washington as well as Alaska and Oregon.

Union members have said they want a fair agreement. They declined to reveal what that could mean when it comes to the wage increases they’re seeking because that’s affected, for example, by other factors like what PeaceHealth offers for health benefits.

“There is no magic number,” Holmes said. “Everything is still on the table as far as that is concerned.”

For its part, PeaceHealth said its last proposal did include significant wage increases to those working in the labs, and increases of more than 11 percent within 15 months of ratification of a contract for hospital workers. But the increase could be above or below that percentage, based on where workers were in the step and grade structure, according to PeaceHealth.

Meanwhile, PeaceHealth is telling patients who have procedures at the hospital on the day of the strike to assume that the procedures will proceed, unless they are told otherwise.

The organization also is closing labs that are part of PeaceHealth Laboratories, which include those in other medical centers, in Whatcom and Skagit counties from Wednesday through Friday.

The Medical Arts Building in Bellingham and United General Medical Center in Sedro-Woolley will remain open for tests that are urgent.

On Tuesday, both sides were preparing for the walkout.

Holmes said the workers are determined to take “bold action” if PeaceHealth isn’t willing to come to a fair agreement.

“It’s important for our co-workers, our caregivers, the patients that we serve, and it’s important for the Bellingham community that we stand up and do what is right,” he said.

Mayhew sought to assure patients.

“Our priority of providing care to patients who need us remains paramount, and we have worked diligently over the last few days — and even months — to ensure that patients and families encounter as little disruption as possible,” she said. “We remain committed to bargaining in good faith and are eager to get back to the negotiating table after the strike and move forward.”

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