June 4, 2004 in City

Deaconess nurses vote to unionize

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Registered nurses at Deaconess Medical Center voted to unionize Thursday and pledged to work with administrators on the hospital’s ailing finances.

The vote was 318 to 194 in favor of joining the Service Employees International Union 1199NW, a powerful union that also represents medical technicians at Deaconess and nurses and technicians at sister unit Valley Hospital and Medical Center.

“There’s no myths that there’s some great financial reward waiting for us now that we’re union,” said nurse Joan Palm. “We’re going to help rebuild the foundation here. We think it’s exciting.”

There are 657 registered nurses at Deaconess, Spokane’s second-largest hospital after Sacred Heart Medical Center, where nurses long have been unionized.

Like most hospitals, Deaconess is struggling. In 2002, the hospital lost about $19 million. Administrators made deep cuts in the spring of 2003, including a 9 percent wage reduction for all employees from the CEO on down.

Yet the hospital’s troubles continue. After several decent months, Deaconess and Valley resumed losses. Together the two hospitals operated by Empire Health Services lost $7.2 million from October through March.

Administrators blame charity write-offs, poor federal and state reimbursement rates from Medicare and Medicaid, and higher numbers of uninsured patients for hurting the bottom line.

CEO Garman Lutz has sought help by enlisting the accounting and consulting expertise of Wall Street heavyweight PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC.

While SEIU officials expressed skepticism about the accounting firm’s proposal to find new revenues and curb costs, union spokesman Carter Wright said the membership is eager to ply its political muscle to route more dollars to hospitals such as Deaconess.

He pointed to an effort last year by SEIU that turned proposed cuts in Medicaid into a net gain. Called the “Put Families First” campaign, SEIU takes credit for lobbying Congress – including Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane – to send $20 billion in federal tax dollars back to the states to halt cuts. Washington’s share was $399 million.

The effort was a partnership with the Washington State Hospital Association.

“This is a real example of how we can work with hospitals,” Wright said. “It’s the kind of thing we see ourselves doing in partnership with (Deaconess).”

Deaconess officials did not attempt to sway the vote.

In a prepared statement, spokeswoman Janice Marich said: “The administration of Deaconess is committed to providing quality care to all of our patients. We will continue to work with our nurses and collaborate with their chosen representative to improve processes and help put our hospital back on track.”

The hospital’s health affects all of Spokane.

Health care is Spokane’s leading economic driver, accounting for one in five jobs, according to a recent study prepared by David Bunting and Patrick Jones of Eastern Washington University.

Deaconess is Spokane’s second-largest private-sector employer.

The union vote reverses last year’s close rejection of organized labor by the nurses.

Cardiac nurse Carolyn Pope said the union’s success was necessary as the financial condition worsened.

Although the hospital returned 5.25 percent of last year’s wage cuts, administrators postponed a 3 percent giveback this spring, Pope said. That came about the time the union representing Sacred Heart nurses secured a 12 percent raise over three years for its membership.

“You look over there and realize things aren’t good. We need to change things, starting with our confidence,” Pope said.

The pay discrepancy has resulted in a higher turnover rate, said nurses who voted for the union.

“We need to get involved. Have a voice and at least be part of the discussion on turning things around,” added Kelley Leifer, a registered nurse in the adult intensive care unit.

Thursday’s revote was ordered in May after a National Labor Relations Board appeals panel affirmed an earlier ruling that hospital officials interfered with the initial vote by implying that a vote for the union could make the wage cuts permanent.


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