DREW HERMAN/Kodiak Daily Mirror Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center is seen on Nov. 2, 2015.

After eight months of failed contract negotiations, a labor organization representing Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center employees has filed an unfair labor practice charge against the hospital with the National Labor Relations Board.

NLRB is an independent federal agency responsible for safeguarding employees’ rights to organize. Unfair labor practice charges result in an investigation, which may lead to a formal complaint and hearing, according to the NLRB website. 

The charge was filed by Alaska Medical Employees Association, a Kodiak-based labor organization that represents most of the 300 PKIMC employees, including nurses, technicians and pharmacists. AMEA has an affiliate agreement with labor organization Alaska Teamsters Local 959 for contract negotiations.

According to Jace Digel, a business representative with Alaska Teamsters Local 959, AMEA does not agree with Providence’s new contract proposal. The charge was filed after failed contract negotiations between AMEA and PKIMC, which began in January of this year. 

“The hospital has consistently given AMEA a ‘take it or leave it’ proposal. We believe that they have bargained in bad faith in doing so,” Digel said, noting that the Providence administration has not been willing to make compromises in the negotiation process. 

The long-term contract between AMEA and PKIMC expired on Feb. 16. Since then, AMEA has signed numerous short-term extensions, lasting between one and two months. The current contract between AMEA and PKIMC is set to expire on Aug. 31.

AMEA has indicated they would be amenable to signing another short-term contract extension while negotiations continue, but the hospital has told AMEA that it “did not see the value of signing an extension at this point,” Digel said. 

Without a signed agreement between the AMEA and PKIMC, the unions may decide to conduct informational picketing, with the potential to hold a strike authorization vote, Digel said. A strike would be authorized if more than half of the union members voted in favor of it, but Digel said that as of now, a strike authorization vote has not been scheduled.

Health care workers must provide at least 10 days’ notice in writing to their employer prior to striking or picketing, according to the National Labor Relations Act. In the case of an AMEA strike, this would allow PKIMC to contract short-term replacements for striking staff. PKIMC is the only hospital on the island. 

Digel declined to provide specific details on the contract negotiation process and the specific requests made by AMEA and PKIMC. However, he said the current PKIMC proposed contract is significantly different than the contracts previously signed with AMEA. 

According to Ronald Hooks, a regional director with the NLRB, Alaska Teamsters filed the charge on behalf of AMEA on Aug. 23, claiming that the employer has been engaging in bad-faith bargaining by refusing to change proposals on vacation and sick leave.

The NLRB review process will take four to eight weeks, and include collection of affidavits and evidence from both the union and the employer. 

Hooks, who is based in Seattle and responsible for a region that includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, said the office will have to make a determination on whether to send an agent to Alaska or collect evidence telephonically. The only NLRB agent based in Anchorage recently retired and has not been replaced.

Digel said that while they wait for the NLRB review process, AMEA has requested additional contract negotiation dates in September. They are waiting to hear from the hospital. 

Disputes between hospital employees and Providence have affected other Providence operations across the United States, including in Washington and California, Digel said.

Providence Health and Services merged with St. Joseph Health in 2016. Providence St. Joseph Health has been trying to promote an aligned benefits program for its employees, which number more than 100,000 across multiple states, Digel said.

Several Washington hospitals are seeing labor disputes similar to the one affecting PKIMC.

The Spokesman (Spokane, Washington) Review reported on Aug. 21, that nurses in the Providence hospital system in Washington are preparing to strike after 10 months of contract negotiations over changes to paid time-off policies from Providence. On June 27, The Olympian (Olympia, Washington) reported that employees at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia  engaged in an informational picket, claiming the new Providence contract could erase millions of dollars’ worth of accumulated benefits for employees across Washington. 

“We’ve been told that everyone is going to the aligned program and that’s not the truth,” Digel said. “We expect PKIMC to honor (employee) wages and working benefits as they currently are. If they decide to unilaterally change those conditions, we will have to look at possibly filing additional charges through the NLRB.”

Digel said he does not think negotiations are at an impasse. 

“We’re waiting for the hospital to respond to continue negotiations. The ball’s in their court,” he said.

So far, negotiations have included Digel, four AMEA board members, Providence attorney Chris Scanlan, Providence human resources consultant Lisa Arnold, and numerous Kodiak and Anchorage-based Providence administrators.

AMEA board members declined to comment on the negotiation, deferring comment to Digel.

The Unfair Labor Practice charge was filed against Gina Bishop, CEO PKIMC. 

“We began negotiations with AMEA in January with the intent to agree on a contract that was set to expire in February. Unfortunately we were unable to come to an agreement,” Bishop said in a statement. “We entered into mediation in April, June and again in August and still were not able to come to an agreement. The federal mediator has asked us to keep the details of negotiations confidential. We are reviewing a request by the union to re-enter negotiations.”

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