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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Deaconess, Valley hospital nurse strike plans on hold

About 1,100 unionized nurses, medical techs and service staff at Deaconess and Valley hospitals have postponed plans for a one-day strike this month.

However, the strike could be rescheduled unless labor contracts bolstering staffing levels are approved.

The strike talk underscores the difficult contract negotiations between two health care organizations known for tough bargaining, even as both sides noted progress Thursday and Friday.

Striking workers would deliver a blow to both hospitals as they continue trying to grow under the Rockwood Health System brand and compete with area market leader Providence Health Care.

And it’s a public relations risk for the SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, a politically connected labor organization with a reputation for aggressiveness.

SEIU is making a push in hopes that the owner of the hospitals, Community Health Systems Inc., changes its staffing matrix to keep more employees on the clock.

Some employees complain that thin staffing could jeopardize patient care.

“If you have staffing fall below certain levels … it gets scary for employees,” said Rachelle Delcambre, a union member and technical worker in the Deaconess cardiac unit. And that’s happening at the hospitals, she said.

Valley nurse and bargaining team member Teri Nicholson said she was encouraged that progress is being made.

“It’s a positive sign yesterday the hospitals were willing to talk with us, but we’re still ready to stand up for an agreement that will improve patient care,” she said.  “We are postponing our strike and will continue to work with management to achieve our patient care goals.”

Community Health executives at Deaconess and Valley dispute the low staffing claims.

“We regularly adjust staffing levels to support the volume and needs of the patients in our care,” the hospitals said in a statement Friday night.

Though the threat of a strike calmed a bit this week, the hospitals would be prepared to stay open – ostensibly by bringing in outside workers to cross the picket line and care for patients.

The labor strife is the latest chapter in a decade of unionization and change at the two hospitals.

SEIU first organized employees at the hospitals a decade ago in the midst of a financial crisis.

A divided nursing staff at Deaconess organized a year later, and then voted in 2008 to drop its union affiliation on the eve of Community Health’s purchase of the two hospitals.

The unions have been working without a contract for much of the year. More bargaining sessions are scheduled this month.