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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Nurses gather outside Sacred Heart as hospital contract negotiations continue

About 200 Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center nurses and their supporters protest contract issues outside the hospital. (Rachel Alexander / The Spokesman-Review)

About 200 Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center registered nurses and their supporters gathered outside the hospital Tuesday morning to show solidarity in the midst of union contract negotiations.

Nurses said the biggest unresolved issues are staffing levels, working conditions and pay.

Negotiations between the Washington State Nurses Association and the hospital began Dec. 15. The contract expired Jan. 1. Both sides have agreed to renew it temporarily while negotiations are pending.

Tuesday is the first day of negotiations with a federal mediator. Nurse Clint Wallace said the hospital moved nurses to a high-deductible insurance plan three years ago and now wants to be able to change the nurses’ health insurance plan at will.

“This contract, we’re saying that’s enough. You’ve cut out the retirement program. You’ve cut our health care,” he said. Nurses also are seeking a cost-of-living increase at minimum, he said.

Sacred Heart administrators declined an interview request for this story.

Instead Sacred Heart issued a statement expressing optimism that an agreement can be reached with the help of a mediator.

The contract only applies to the roughly 1,700 registered nurses who work at Sacred Heart. But Wallace said it may have implications for other nurses in Washington.

“We are the big fish in town and one of the biggest hospitals in the state, so a lot of what happens in our contracts has a tendency to roll down,” he said.

Nurses also want Sacred Heart to hire enough nurses to bring the hospital to what the union considers safe staffing levels. The hospital has 100 open and unfilled nursing positions, Wallace said.

“They’re filling a lot of hours with overtime,” said Chris Schreiner, who’s been a nurse at the hospital for 23 years. While that means extra pay for nurses, it’s leading to burnout and worse care for patients, she said.

“If Sacred Heart were having financial problems, we’d understand,” said Sue Matthews, who’s been a nurse for 30 years. She and other nurses said compensation for top hospital executives shows the hospital can afford to pay them more.

Nurse Barb Ormsby said negotiations usually go past the contract expiration date, which means the hospital can avoid pay increases for several extra months. Most nurses work there because they’re passionate about caring for people, she said, but they also want to feel valued.

“The majority of us are not here for the paycheck,” she said.