A one-day strike looms Wednesday at Deaconess and Valley hospitals after contract negotiations with nurses and other workers failed.
It would be the first strike in Spokane by hospital nurses in decades – perhaps ever.
As the 1,100 unionized health care workers prepare to walk out at 6 a.m. Wednesday, hospital administrators say they are ready to keep the hospitals open for the day with teams of temporary replacement workers across all departments, from the emergency rooms to the operating tables to the newborn unit.
Agreement on appropriate staffing levels continues to divide the sides.
“As our administration tries to extract more income out of the hospitals, they have cut staffing levels too much,” said Teri Nicholson, a registered nurse with 36 years of experience between the two hospitals. “It’s a serious problem.”
Hospital executives say they regularly adjust staff levels to meet the number of patients and the care they require.
Nicholson said the hospitals use a staffing matrix based on the company’s nationwide network of hospitals rather than comparing staffing models to regional hospitals.
Registered nurses at Valley Hospital have been working without a contract for a year.
Technical workers and hospital staff at both Deaconess and Valley have been working under an expired contract for months.
Nurses at Deaconess voted five years ago to disband their union and are no longer represented by Service Employees International Union 1199NW. The union has asked the nurses at Deaconess to support them by not taking extra shifts at Valley to shore up the staffing by replacement workers.
The union and hospitals have little to show for on-again-off-again bargaining in recent months.
It comes at a time when both hospitals – owned by Tennessee-based Community Health Systems – adjust to leadership changes. Valley has a new chief executive officer and Deaconess has resumed the search for a new top executive after an Oregon administrator hired for the job changed her mind.
The labor unrest also occurs amid rapid health and insurance reforms, and massive marketing campaigns by all of the region’s hospitals to secure patient and physician loyalties.
Nicholson acknowledged the stakes involved.
“Things like (a strike) are detrimental to the reputation of the facilities, and yet we can’t stand by and think we’re fooling people,” she said. “At some point, we have to stand up for the care of patients.”
Nurses and technical workers at all Spokane hospitals have staged informational pickets and labor rallies in past years.
This one-day strike is a step further and could portend deeper labor problems next year at Deaconess and Valley.