Hospital

Negotiations for a contract between an employee union and the Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center remain at a standstill after months of failed talks.

Members of the Alaska Medical Employees Association, which represents around 200 employees in Kodiak’s only hospital, have been working without a contract since Oct. 31. 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. However, since Oct. 31 Providence has refused to extend the contract, instead choosing to temporarily extend previous employment terms until a new contract is negotiated.

Now, the union says they may be forced to strike.

“AMEA continues with the stance that we do not want to go on strike but feels that Providence has basically forced us into needing to strike if we want to achieve a fair contract,” wrote union representative Genevieve Cook in an email to the Kodiak Daily Mirror.

A letter signed by 146 Kodiak caregivers, comprising three quarters of union employees, appeared in the Mirror on Wednesday, stating that the union is interested in maintaining sick leave and accrued paid time off. The letter “shows that our caregivers are committed to working together and standing tall in the face of Providence St. Joseph corporatization and proposed cuts to benefits,” Cook wrote.

The union has scheduled an informational picket on Feb. 1 and intends to hold a strike authorization vote the same day. Cook wrote that the community is invited to participate in the picket “to let the local hospital administration know, as well as the outsiders insisting on these changes, that Kodiak supports our local employees and Kodiak cares about keeping Kodiak healthy.”

After the union announced its plan to picket and host a strike authorization vote, Providence scheduled new negotiation dates for Feb. 4 and 5, according to Cook. This is the first time Providence has agreed to formally meet with union negotiators since October.

“This is a major change from Providence as they have been unwilling to even come to the table for negotiations since October,” Cook wrote. “We are very hopeful they are ready to consider a fair contract.”

In response to a request for comment, PKIMC CEO Gina Bishop said in a statement that the February meeting dates were scheduled at the request of AMEA.

“The parties have been and as of now, remain, at impasse. We are hopeful these meetings can be productive and helpful,” Bishop wrote.

Providence administrators in Kodiak continue to state that the hospital is committed to providing their employees “a fulfilling work environment and market-competitive wages and benefits,” according to an ad paid for by the Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center, which appeared in the Friday issue of the Mirror.

The ad states that Providence’s proposal offers employees with five to seven weeks of paid time off, depending on tenure. The proposal also includes paid parental leave of 65% of pay for six weeks following a birth, and short-term disability benefit providing 65% of income replacement for up to 25 weeks per event.

Union representatives have insisted that maintaining their sick leave and accrued paid time off will help them continue to serve the Kodiak community.

“It does seem disingenuous for Providence to put an ad in our paper highlighting how great the short term disability program is when they’ve already… agreed to abandon their plan for basically the whole state of Washington,” Cook wrote about the Providence ad. “PKIMC employees care deeply about this community and studies show that sick leave benefits communities, patients, employees, schools, daycares, and families.”

 Cook said the union is hopeful they can reach an agreement and start repairing all of the relationships at the hospital. 

“My hope is that we can maintain our current benefits,” she said. “They were able to give that agreement to all those hospitals in Washington and I am hopeful that will work out for us too.”

The union previously filed two unfair labor practice claims against Providence with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Providence of bargaining in bad faith and refusing to schedule further negotiating dates. However, Cook said the union recently withdrew their claims. She did not provide any comment on the reasoning behind the decision. 

The Kodiak hospital union follows in the footsteps of unions representing employees in 13 Providence-owned medical centers in Washington. According to Cook, union employees in Washington “had all been negotiating unsuccessfully for at least a year with Providence over the exact same issues as us, namely Providence St. Joseph Health insisting on an aligned benefits program which included a large cut to our vacation and sick leave benefits.”

The Washington unions voted overwhelmingly to authorize strikes late last year, but many hospitals were able to avoid strikes and reach agreements due to the union’s united stance against Providence, Cook said. 

On Nov. 26, the Washington State Nurses Association team at the Kadlec Regional Medical Center, located in Richland, Washington, reached a tentative agreement with Providence that would leave union members’ paid time off unchanged. The agreement was reached days after the Kadlec union voted to authorize a strike.

The Tri-City Herald reported on Dec. 10 that the Kadlec hospital nurses approved a three-year contract after negotiations that lasted 14 months. According to Cook, the new agreement allowed employees to keep paid time off accruals, but new employees would have to accept the new paid time off plan proposed by Providence.

“This was great progress but still represented a big cut to new employees,” Cook wrote.

After the Kadlec union reached the agreement, 12 other hospitals in Washington, represented by three different unions, formed a unity commitment in early December, according to a report in the Spokesman Review in Spokane, Washington. Together, the three unions represent 13,000 workers at Providence locations throughout Washington. The unions threatened to strike, but within days Providence returned to the negotiating table, and the strikes were called off.

Following the strike threat, union workers in Providence-run hospitals in Spokane, Walla Walla, Olympia, Centralian and Everett reached tentative agreements that allowed them to maintain their benefits.

“These were all only possible because of the commitment that their employees demonstrated to stand together, take a strike authorization vote, and insist on a fair contract,” Cook wrote.

However, Swedish hospitals in Washington, which are owned by Providence, remain in a negotiations standstill, which has recently pushed them to authorize a strike later this month.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents 7,800 nurses and caregivers employed by the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle and Swedish Edmonds in Washington, delivered a strike notice to hospital officials on Friday, according to a report in The Associated Press. The notice comes after renewed negotiation efforts stalled last week. The three-day strike is scheduled to begin on Jan. 28 and end Jan. 31. 

The Swedish union negotiators have called for increased staffing, better wages and benefits protection, according to the AP report. In response, Swedish CEO Guy Hudson said the hospital will halt all bargaining until the strike is over. He said thousands of contract nurses and caregivers from across the country will be flown to Washington state to fill in for striking employees. Swedish officials said emergency room services won’t be affected, but non-urgent procedures may be delayed. 

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