After negotiations between Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center and the Alaska Medical Employees Association stalled last week, the union has filed an unfair labor practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board.

AMEA, a union that represents around 200 hospital workers, had already filed a claim with the NLRB in August. The new claim focuses on PKIMC’s refusal to bargain, according to Jace Digel, a business representative with Alaska Teamsters Local 959.

According to Digel, PKIMC is now refusing to schedule additional bargaining dates, which is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act. The long-term contract between the union and Providence expired Feb. 16. Since then, there have been numerous short-term extensions of one to two months.

The most recent round of negotiations, held Oct. 29 and 30, led to a stalemate. The union’s existing contract expired on Oct. 31, leaving union employees vulnerable. According to Digel, Providence is expected to continue honoring wages, benefits and working conditions determined in the previous contract, until a new contract is signed.

Genevieve Cook, a pediatric physical therapist for the Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center who has been a part of the negotiating process, said that the “growing corporatization” of Providence St. Joseph hospitals has changed the tone of the negotiating process.

“I have worked at the hospital for just over 10 years and am the first to say I love my job, my patients, my community, and my co-workers,” she said in a statement to the Kodiak Daily Mirror.

“Historically, negotiations have been a smooth, positive, reasonable and fair process.  Now that PKIMC has fallen under the Providence St. Joseph umbrella, the tone of the process has changed significantly.”

 Cook has been a member of the union’s negotiating board for the last three rounds of negotiations. In the past, she said, negotiations lasted three days. Now, there is no end in sight.

 Providence Health and Services merged with St. Joseph Health in 2016. The company, which now operates 51 hospitals across the country, has sought to create a uniform benefits program for all employees. 

According to Cook, AMEA believe that “Providence St. Josephs wants to cut our benefits without something of equal value in return.” The union claims that Providence’s proposed benefits package would reduce overall leave accrual, eliminate sick leave and cause employees to lose already accrued sick leave.

“In return, they’ve offered to replace our sick leave with short term disability insurance – a benefit that state employees can purchase for about $2 per month,” Cook said. “In short, they want to cut something that’s tremendously valuable, and replace it with something that’s worth significantly less.”

Cook stated that Providence has been unwilling to budge on eliminating sick leave, prompting the union to offer numerous creative proposals that mitigate the cuts. However, Providence has refused them all.

“Basically, all we ask is that Providence balance the cuts they insist on with something of equal value,” she said.

 According to a statement made by PKIMC CEO Gina Bishop, Providence’s offer to AMEA includes a robust paid time off plan that is commensurate to their current benefits. 

“Employees would accrue paid time off (PTO) hours each pay period, and these hours could be used for sick leave, vacation, to take care of a sick child, travel for medical appointments, or any other life circumstance where an employee needs to care for themselves or others,” the statement reads. “In addition, should an employee suffer an injury or illness that takes them out of work for an extended period, we are offering an employer-paid short term disability feature in which employees can receive up to 65% of their pay for up to 25 weeks. We have also recently introduced a paid parental leave program in which both mothers and fathers who are employed with Providence can receive 65% of their pay for up to six weeks after the birth or adoption of a child. Both of these programs can be augmented with PTO to provide 100% of pay.”

 Bishop said the vacation and sick leave banks under the current contract expose employees to time without pay, depending on their length of time of illness and number of accrued hours available.

 “This current program makes caregivers financially vulnerable if they need medical leave without having enough accrued time, which is why we are proposing a short-term disability component. Short-term disability income replacement provides consistent pay without creating worry of whether there are enough hours ‘in the bank,’” Bishop said. “Additionally, for leaves longer than 180 days, caregivers are provided a long-term disability insurance plan. Both the short-term and long-term disability benefits will be completely paid by Providence.”

 According to Cook, the short term disability policy offered by Providence does not offer more financial security than the existing sick leave and vacation accrual benefit. The loss of accrued sick leave, which can be saved from year to year, is “substantial,” she said. 

 “Between loss of vacation and sick days, new employees would accrue up to two weeks less leave per year,” Cook said, noting that the paid time off offered by Providence is reduced across the board. “While Providence reports that this benefit is ‘market competitive,’ it is a lower accrual rate than other health organizations in Kodiak, the city, the fire department and the State of Alaska.”  

 Bishop said that short term disability and sick leave function in fundamentally different ways. Short term disability covers up to 25 weeks of illness, and refreshes every 12 months. 

“By contrast, very few of our caregivers ever accrue 25 weeks of sick leave,” Bishop said. “Under our proposal, caregivers will still be able to use their PTO for ordinary sick days.”   

Cook said the union has considered different scenarios and found that a very low percentage of workers would be beneficially served by the short term disability leave, or STD. 

“The STD policy only covers illnesses longer than seven days, and if you do the math, it isn’t a superior or even near equal benefit unless a person experiences a very long illness,” she said. “It requires significant paperwork and working with a third-party vendor to arrange the leave, so we’re really not sure how it could be relayed as a ‘more flexible’ plan.”

 AMEA reached out to employees working in other hospitals that have accepted the new benefits program, including in Anchorage and the Lower 48.

 “We have yet to find one employee who feels like they received a good deal. Unanimously, they have reported that they have less vacation time available. More alarmingly, they report that co-workers are coming to work sick in order to avoid losing precious vacation days,” she said.

Cook said Kodiak employees would be made particularly vulnerable under the new benefits plan.

 “Kodiak has so many unique characteristics that make it justifiably different from cities in the Lower 48,” she said. “One of the very most important benefits for people in Kodiak is time off for vacation and taking care of themselves and their families when sick ... We’ve all experienced the Kodiak crud.”

“Kodiak is harder and more expensive to get to, medical appointments frequently require travel, and travel is frequently interrupted or delayed due to weather,” she added. “Many people in Kodiak do not live near family, and traveling is expensive and time-consuming.”

 Without a contract in place, the union may take a vote to authorize a strike, but Cook said that option is not on the table. However, she said there is “a sense of insecurity” among employees. 

“Overall I think hospital morale is low. I think that employees have the feeling that our local leaders don’t have the ability to influence what’s going on or support us,” she said, adding that the union believes the proposed benefits change is coming from the corporate level of Providence, rather than the Kodiak leadership team. 

According to Cook, the cuts are made “in the name of corporate alignment” and not to address any budget shortfall.

“They have never said, ‘it is a financial reason why we cannot continue to give you the benefits that you currently receive,’” she said. “The main thrust of their argument is that it needs to be aligned, it needs to be exactly the same.”

 According to figures collected by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, Providence CEO Rod Hochman’s total compensation grew from $4.1 million in 2016 to $10.5 million in 2017. The total compensation of Providence executives grew by 59% between 2016 and 2017. 

“Providence would like us to think that we’re the only hospital that hasn’t accepted this change.  This is simply not true,” Cook said. As of last week, failed negotiations have brought unionized hospital workers to the brink of a strike in seven different Providence hospitals in Washington. 

 Providence employees in Alaska not represented by a union “did not have a choice when it came to accepting the new consolidated leave program,” Cook said.

 AMEA is not the only union to submit an unfair labor practice claim against Providence St. Joseph. In recent months, unions in Washington, Massachusetts, California, and Oregon have filed unfair labor practice claims against Providence hospitals. In Washington, 20,000 Providence employees have banded together under the name Providence United Coalition, calling for Providence to “put patients before profits.”

However, NLRB Regional Director Ronald Hooks said he hasn’t seen a connection between different claims against Providence hospitals. Hooks is the decision-maker for all claims made in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.

“I wouldn’t venture to say we are operating under any pattern type of conduct,” he said.

Hooks said that the new claim made by AMEA may delay the decision process on their previous claim.

 “Given that (the new claim is) against the same employer and is alleging similar allegations, we will have to make an analysis of whether or not we are able to complete the investigation of the earlier charge without examining additional evidence,” he said. A typical investigation lasts between two and three months, “but every case is different.”

 Hooks said the NLRB attempts to get sworn statements from both sides of the dispute in the adjudication process. Cook said she has yet to hear from an NLRB representative.

 The union is still considering next steps. For their part, Providence has stated that it is “willing to go back to the negotiation table with AMEA when there is a realistic chance of an agreement. At this point, AMEA’s position has made that impossible.”

 

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