May 31, 1997 in City

Visiting Nurses Vote To Strike Next Month Walkout Scheduled For June 9; Nurses Care For 650 Patients In Spokane Area

By The Spokesman-Review
 

At least 60 nurses who care for 650 sick people in their homes in the Spokane area plan to go on strike June 9.

The nurses are asking their employer, the Visiting Nurse Association, for a pay increase. They also want protection for using legitimate sick time, and more compensation for the risks of working at night.

Contract talks started March 4 between the nurses, represented by the Washington State Nurses Association, and VNA management.

Negotiations stalled after 10 sessions, and the two-year contract expired April 30.

Nurses have been doing informational picketing since May 19 in front of the VNA building, 3901 E. Main.

“It was a very hard decision to make,” said Sue Frankovich, a nurse who’s worked evenings for 4-1/2 years at the VNA. “A lot of soul-searching and discussing all sides of the issue went into it.”

Both managers and nurses worried about VNA patients, who are much sicker than 10 years ago. Home health-care nurses now set up intensive-care units in living rooms. They drive into dangerous neighborhoods at night. They fill out stacks of paperwork.

About 70 registered nurses work for the VNA, either full- or part-time. Of those contacted on a union list of 64, 60 out of 63 voted Thursday night in favor of a strike.

If the nurses do strike, it would be the second time at the Spokane VNA. The 14 nurses who worked for the VNA in January 1984 went on strike because of low pay and threatened benefits.

That strike lasted five days, but terms of the settlement weren’t made public.

The VNA nurses say their wages now run 10 to 12 percent below what hospital nurses make. They claim that in the past two years, VNA nurses have had a 20 percent turnover rate.

“We’re feeling rather desperate that we need to keep these quality nurses on the job,” said Lynnette Meisen-Vehrs, the co-chair for the VNA local unit.

Management admits visiting nurses make less money than hospital nurses. But there just isn’t the money available for any raises aside from the 3 percent annual step increases given to nurses with up to 15 years experience.

Nurses who have left VNA have followed their spouses to other cities, returned to school or pursued new career opportunities, said Debbie Lockhert, communications director at the VNA.

Management representatives said they were researching how patients would be cared for if the strike happens. The VNA also employs home health aides and many rehabilitation therapists.

“We’re taking it very seriously,” Lockhert said. “Our focus is on continuing to want to meet with the nurses.”

A federal negotiator will meet with both sides at 6 p.m. Tuesday to try to prevent a strike.

Both management and nurses are uncomfortable with pointing fingers at each other. They both point instead to a squeeze on health-care dollars and see the issue more as one of where available money will go.

The VNA nurses make from $14.70 to $23.19 an hour, depending on their level of experience. They’re asking for raises of 3 percent a year for the next two years.

They also want a line inserted into their contract that would prevent nurses from being disciplined for the legitimate use of sick time. The issue hasn’t been much of a problem yet, nurses said, but threatens to become one. The nurses also want to be able to have more compensation for working evening shifts or taking on more responsibilities.

“The basic issue is not the nickels, dimes and quarters,” Frankovich said. “The issue is management’s inability to address the high turnover of skilled quality nurses.”

, DataTimes

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