Bellingham healthcare workers on strike: ‘PeaceHealth can do better’

Holding up signs that read “affordable health care for all” and “patients before profits,” hundreds of workers at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center and its labs went on strike Wednesday, May 13, for one day.

The workers are members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, which has been wrangling with PeaceHealth over a three-year contract. The union represents support and tech staff totaling up to 900 workers.

They walked out at 6 a.m. for 25 hours, meaning until 6:59 a.m. Thursday, after a breakdown in negotiations over wages, health benefits and staffing levels.

Striking employees included nursing assistants, lab technicians, dietary staff, unit secretaries, and hospital housekeeping, according to the union, which said Wednesday that most of its members joined the strike.

A PeaceHealth representative said about 90 employees in the morning shift went to work instead of going on strike, and expected that number to grow during the afternoon and evening shift.

“We’re disappointed that SEIU chose to strike when it appeared that we were close to a settlement,” PeaceHealth spokeswoman Beverly Mayhew said Wednesday. “We sincerely appreciate all the caregivers in the bargaining unit who chose not to participate in the strike today. However, we respect those who did choose to participate.”

To continue operating during the strike, PeaceHealth hired an agency that provided temporary replacement workers for three days.

On Wednesday, striking workers gathered in pockets on the sidewalk in front of PeaceHealth’s hospital in Bellingham, with the largest number at Squalicum Parkway and Ellis Street.

Led by two workers with bullhorns, employees chanted to passing motorists: “Honk if you care about equality. Honk if you care about your family. Honk for health care.”

They also shouted, “Hey hey ho ho, low wages have got to go.”

Sue Corbus, a medical technologist who works in a PeaceHealth lab, was among those picketing Wednesday.

“We’re not asking for outrageous improvements in conditions,” she said. “We think PeaceHealth can do better. We know they can.”

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. They cited concern about sharp increases in health insurance premiums — PeaceHealth is self-insured — that have burdened employees on the low end of the pay scale, corporate health care that shifts control away from Whatcom County, and employees sent to collection when they couldn’t repay their medical bills.

“I do believe in PeaceHealth’s mission to serve the community,” said Kathleen Cruse, a member of the union bargaining team and a senior lab assistant who has worked for PeaceHealth for 10 years. “They need to apply that same mission to their employees.”

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

On Wednesday, the daughter of a 79-year-old Bellingham woman who has been hospitalized since suffering a stroke last week was angry about the strike, saying her mother might not be able to have a feeding tube put into her stomach Wednesday because of the walkout.

“I just think patients’ health and rights should come first. I can’t believe that this is even possible,” said Susan Long, who traveled from Wisconsin to be with her mom. “People that go to a hospital, they’ve got enough to think about.”

Mayhew hadn’t heard about the case and couldn’t comment on it.

“I’ve heard absolutely no examples of any compromise in the quality of patient care. I wouldn’t expect any,” Mayhew said. “There are no deficits. We would not open our doors if we felt there would be. Patient safety is paramount.”

Both PeaceHealth and the union said they want to return to bargaining for a new contract.

And while the strike will end at 6:59 a.m. Thursday, that doesn’t mean striking employees will be able to go back to work.

PeaceHealth said that because the agency that provided temporary workers required a minimum three-day contract, striking employees can’t come back until the contract has ended.

Striking workers accused PeaceHealth of illegally locking them out and said they will march into the hospital when their strike ends Thursday morning.

“We’re prepared for it,” Mayhew said, declining to say more.

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