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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Unions for Sacred Heart nurses and hospital workers schedule strike votes

Picketing organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers union occurs with Sacred Heart nurses and staff outside of Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center on June 27. The employees continue to negotiate with Providence for a new contract. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

After months of negotiations, union nurses and other hospital workers at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center will vote late next week on whether to authorize a strike.

Contract negotiations have gone on for months and the unions are unhappy with Providence’s proposed changes to benefits and leave time. A federal mediator was brought in this fall for negotiations.

Nurses at Sacred Heart are represented by the Washington State Nursing Association, and hospital service and maintenance workers are represented by UFCW 21. Both unions announced the strike authorization votes, set for Oct. 24 and 25, in a news release Monday.

“None of the nurses want to do this, but that’s how important it is,” said Stevie Lynne Krone, a nurse and WSNA co-chair at Sacred Heart.

Providence officials expressed their desire to continue negotiations.

“We’re still negotiating; we’re still coming to the table,” said Peg Currie, chief executive at Providence. “We have dates; we’re still moving with both unions.”

The next scheduled negotiating session for nurses at Sacred Heart is Oct. 29. There are no set dates for UFCW 21 workers at Sacred Heart at this time, said Tom Geiger, with UFCW 21.

Union leaders decry Providence’s proposed changes as a way to pocket the savings from cutting benefits. They cite the multimillion-dollar salaries of the Catholic nonprofit hospital system’s corporate executives along with big bottom lines.. Providence leaders disagree with the assertion that the proposed changes are spurred by finances, citing instead harmonization of benefits across the Providence system and retaining workers.

“What we’re trying to do is be market competitive, and have benefits that are transferable with minimal impact to our caregivers,” Currie said. “It’s not really a position of finance.”

Union members do not want Providence to change their benefits package, which currently includes an extended illness program that accrues over time and can be used not only when an employee is sick but when family members are sick, too.

Providence is proposing a new benefits system that would end extended illness time and instead offer a short-term disability program and a paid parental leave program. Both of those proposed programs would pay employees on leave up to 65% of their pay. Employees would have to use their paid time off to supplement those plans in order to be paid their full salary while on leave.

This differs from the current benefits package with extended illness time, which pays out 100% for leave, Krone said. The average annual pay for a full-time nurse at Sacred Heart is more than $80,000.

Additionally, employees would have to use a new state program if they wanted to take leave to care for a family member under Providence’s new proposal because short-term disability leave does not allow for that.

Providence also proposes using the Washington Paid Family and Medical Leave program, which begins Jan. 1. Providence and its employees both began contributing to the program this past January, as did all employees and employers in the state with more than 50 workers.

Employees who have been at Sacred Heart the longest and have accrued a large amount of extended illness time have the most to lose if Providence does away with the benefit.

Providence’s proposal seeks to standardize benefits packages across the multiple states where it operates hospitals and clinics. Currie said the new benefits package was accepted in Oregon, Alaska and Montana Providence facilities, and all nonrepresented employees at Sacred Heart will switch to the new benefits plan in January. Currently, more than half of nurses have less than 100 hours of sick time, or two and half weeks of extended illness time, said Susan Stacey, chief nursing officer at Sacred Heart.

Darryl Johnson, a cardiac intensive care unit nurse who is also a WSNA grievance officer, said many nurses want to keep what they’ve earned through years of service.

“It’s there as a bank if you need it,” Johnson said.

There are more than 1,900 Sacred Heart nurses represented by WSNA and 1,280 service and maintenance workers eligible to cast a strike authorization vote. The vote would not immediately trigger a strike. After Sacred Heart nurses vote, the decision to call a strike goes back to the highest WSNA cabinet, which decides.

“The cabinet at their discretion may call a strike, and at that time, that would trigger and allow WSNA to set the strike date and provide 10-day notice,” said Anne Piazza, senior director of strategic initiatives with WSNA.

Sacred Heart would have 10 days to put together a staffing plan ahead of any strike. Neither the unions nor Providence says they want a strike to happen. Both sides at the bargaining table have emphasized wanting the best for the patients and the community.

“We will engage in every effort to reach that goal of a fair contract,” Piazza said.

Providence is the largest private employer in Spokane and Sacred Heart is its flagship hospital and major trauma center.

Bargaining units throughout the state are in contract negotiations with Providence, the largest hospital system in the state. Hospital workers represented by UFCW 21 will vote to strike or not strike in the coming weeks at Providence Holy Family, as well as at other facilities in Walla Walla, Everett, Centralia and Olympia.

The nurses at Holy Family work under a separate contract and are not involved in the Sacred Heart labor dispute.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.