UPDATE: Bellingham nurses stage protest at PeaceHealth's Vancouver headquarters (with video)

Group is locked in labor dispute with company

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 

Hospital nurses locked in a labor dispute with PeaceHealth in Bellingham brought their concerns to the company’s Vancouver headquarters Wednesday, protesting management cost-cutting proposals they say will hurt nurses and the patients they serve.

About 160 nurses and their backers, including people from Washington and Oregon, lined the sidewalk next to the entrance to PeaceHealth’s main office. They carried signs (“Patients B4 Profits”) and chanted in unison: “Nurses united, we’ll never be divided!”

At issue is a labor contract at PeaceHealth’s St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, where about 740 nurses are represented by the Washington State Nurses Association. The old, three-year contract expired at the end of 2012, and the union and PeaceHealth remain at odds over the terms of a new one. The conflict recently saw its 15th unsuccessful negotiating session, and both parties have agreed to bring in a federal mediator, according to Robin McConnell, an emergency room nurse at St. Joseph Medical Center.

The union says a new contract needs beefed-up language to ensure there are enough nurses to provide quality care to patients. Among other concerns, the union also opposes moves to curtail nurses’ sick-leave benefits and to increase the premiums they pay for health insurance.

PeaceHealth declined to discuss the specifics of the contract negotiations. Instead, the nonprofit, Catholic-sponsored health care company issued a statement saying, in part, that the compensation and benefits package it offers is “extremely competitive within the health care industry and with other employers in our local markets.”

The union worries that if PeaceHealth gets what it wants in Bellingham, the company will impose similar terms at other facilities in Oregon and Washington, including at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver.

The union represents about 1,000 nurses at the Vancouver hospital, where the current contract is expected to expire sometime in 2014.

“This is something that has implications going forward for” nurses at other PeaceHealth facilities, said Lillie Cridland, a union spokeswoman.

Petitions presented

After gathering Wednesday afternoon at the entrance to PeaceHealth’s headquarters at the Columbia Tech Center’s Columbia Center, a group of about 10 of the nurses and union backers headed inside PeaceHealth’s lobby, where a security guard was on hand.

They wanted to speak to PeaceHealth’s president and chief mission officer, Alan Yordy. They also wanted to deliver petitions containing thousands of signatures calling on PeaceHealth administrators to maintain affordable health insurance for nurses and to provide a respectful work environment.

Several minutes passed. Then two PeaceHealth representatives, including Kathy Dean, a communications manager for the company, came to greet the group. Dean said Yordy was out of town and unavailable to speak to them.

Sarah Newell, a union negotiator and nurse at St. Joseph Medical Center, said PeaceHealth is wrong to try to cut sick-leave benefits, especially because nurses’ work exposes them to a high risk of falling ill.

“We’re trying desperately to hang onto” those benefits, Newell said.

Dean accepted the petitions, and the group left the lobby to return to the protest outside.

In a news release, the union said PeaceHealth “made a $112 million profit in fiscal year 2011” and that nurses are protesting to hold Yordy “accountable in putting patients before profits by investing in patient safety measures and the registered nurses at St. Joe’s Hospital.”

The union says its top concerns include:

• Adding language to the contract that would focus on the needs of patients — not just the number of patients — in determining nurse staffing levels.

• Opposing a proposal by PeaceHealth administrators to switch nurses from an “extended illness bank” accrual system for sick leave to short-term disability, which “pays only 66.7 percent of the nurse’s salary and benefits” and doesn’t start until seven days after an insurance company decides a nurse has an illness or injury that prevents the person from working.

In the statement issued by PeaceHealth, the company said it’s “deeply committed to our nurses, and proud of the high-quality, compassionate care our caregivers provide to patients and the community. We provide competitive wages and benefits in order to continue to attract and retain the very best caregivers.”

PeaceHealth also said: “We are looking forward to management and the nurses at St. Joseph Hospital … returning to the bargaining table in Bellingham with the intention of reaching an agreement with the union that is fair to our nurses and our other caregivers, as well as the hospital.”

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com

View a video of the protest on The Columbian's YouTube Channel.