Longview PeaceHealth workers hold rally

Employees push for stronger health benefits amid contract talks

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

More than 100 members of a union representing support staff at Longview's PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center rallied Wednesday outside the hospital to push for strong health care benefits in a new contract now being negotiated between Vancouver-based PeaceHealth and Service Employees International Union Local 49.

The current three-year contract expires at the end of this month, and several more bargaining meetings are scheduled for this week and next, according to Jesse Stemmler, communications director for Local 49. The contract covers more than 460 hospital workers at St. John, including medical and certified nursing assistants, emergency department and pharmacy technicians, housekeepers and unit secretaries.

Four bargaining sessions have been held so far, the union said.

PeaceHealth's proposed three-year package offers no wage increase in the contract's first year and one percent increases in each of the two remaining years, the union said in a fact sheet. The proposed health care plan would significantly increase costs to employees, Stemmler said. A new high-deductible option would require a family to pay up to $4,000 before health care coverage kicks in, he said.

Ken Cole, director of communications and marketing for PeaceHealth's Columbia network, which includes St. John in Longview and PaeceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, said the nonprofit had made an agreement with the union not to discuss negotiations "in a public way."

The tense negotiations come at a time when PeaceHealth faces significant financial struggles. The nonprofit health care system with operations in three states said last month that it will eliminate about 500 jobs across its system through a combination of layoffs, elimination of unfilled positions and reductions in employee hours. PeaceHealth says it will lay off 30 employees at St. John Medical Center, part of 177 layoffs in Longview, Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver and PeaceHealth's shared services center in Vancouver.

Stemmler said Local 49 employees are angry over what they consider high salaries of PeaceHealth's top executives. The union points out that Alan Yordy, PeaceHealth's president and CEO, earns $1.27 million annually in salary and other compensation,

"All these things have fed into this moment now where workers just want to keep their health plan," Stemmler said. "They're not asking for significant raises. They feel its not that much to ask when they hear about the (high) executive compensation."

Cole said PeaceHealth bases its executive compensation on the 50th percentile of market for similar positions, and that its salaries are verified to meet that standard by an independent third party.

Cole noted that PeaceHealth is struggling with a declining number of patients at St. John as people put off health treatments because of high-deductible insurance policies and as Kaiser Permanente shifts more of its patients to Oregon hospitals.

"We just need to operate more efficiently and maintain our focus on quality and service to our community," Cole said.