Days after unanimously voting to authorize a strike, the Alaska Medical Employees Association was back at the negotiating table with the Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center.

Contract negotiations between the union and Providence, a healthcare company that owns 51 hospitals across the country, have dragged on for almost a year. Union representatives have said that Providence is seeking to reduce their benefits, while PKIMC has maintained they are offering comparable benefits to compensate for the loss. 

The negotiating team met on Tuesday and Wednesday, after a 90-day negotiating hiatus. A representative of the union, which includes around 200 employees at Kodiak’s only hospital, now says he is optimistic about reaching an agreement with Providence. 

“We thought it went pretty well,” said Jace Digel, Alaska Teamsters Local 959 chief of staff. “We didn’t end up coming to an agreement at the end of the sessions, but I think both sides were working better to reach a contract. We’re not all the way there by any means, but it was a more productive session than we’ve seen in the past.”

Union Rep. Genevieve Cook, a physical therapist with the hospital, said she feels positive about the negotiations.

“I’m just glad we were able to have negotiations,” she said.

A statement from Gina Bishop, CEO of Providence, was equally positive.

“Providence feels that these discussions were productive and helpful, and although the parties were not yet able to reach a complete tentative agreement to be voted on by union members, the parties have committed to meeting again as soon as schedules allow. We are hopeful and optimistic that mutually agreeable contract terms can be reached,” Bishop said. 

The team is in the process of confirming additional negotiating sessions for early March.

“The overall feeling is even though we’re not there — we still have some issues to overcome — I think at this point we may be headed in the right direction,” Digel said. However, he noted that some of the major issues persist. “We still have some of those same issues about negotiating paid time off and sick leave to bridge the gap.”

During informational picketing held Saturday, members of the union said that the new contract previously proposed by Providence would eliminate sick leave and reduce paid time off, making work and life in Kodiak more challenging. The prolonged negotiations have created tension among hospital staff. 

The picketing, attended by more than 100 community and union members, was an “awesome” display of solidarity, Cook said, adding that the event served as a platform for community members to show support for the union, and for union members, who come from different hospital departments, to get to know one another. 

“There’s still issues with general morale,” Cook said, but added that members are positive about the prospect of future negotiations. 

Non-union Providence employees, including security workers and lower-level management, were transitioned to a new benefits plan last week, Cook said, adding that the transition has solidified support for the union position throughout the hospital.

Union members have worked without a contract in place since the end of October, when Providence decided against temporarily extending the union members’ existing contract after a failed round of negotiations. Digel said the union members will continue to work without a contract until a final agreement is reached.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “If we don’t have a contract in place, we retain the right to give (Providence) notice to go on strike. At the same time, you don’t have all of the protections that you have under a collective bargaining agreement.”

The strike authorization vote that passed on Saturday allows the union to give Providence notice on their intent to strike. The hospital administration would then have 10 days to recruit temporary service providers and transport them to Kodiak to provide essential services for the duration of the strike.

Digel declined to say whether a strike is still on the table for the union but said that the goal has always been to reach a contract.

“If something were to drastically change, we would definitely (strike), but we don’t see that happening,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to reach a contract.”

For now, the union is poised to avoid a strike. 

“I think there’s a difference in what we’ve seen in the past 90 days from the hospital,” Digel said. “We’re going to take that as a positive message to try to reach a contract.”

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