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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Health care unions support vaccines, want mandates bargained in contract talks

Health care unions want new vaccination mandates subject to contract negotiations. Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center is seen in this photo taken in July.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Unions that represent tens of thousands of nurses and other health caregivers throughout the state are supportive of Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate issued on Monday, but they want such new requirements to be bargained as part of contract negotiations.

Vaccine mandates have put health care unions in a delicate position: They are strong supporters of the vaccines but have a duty to represent the interests of all their members, including those who don’t want to be vaccinated.

Last week MultiCare and Providence, which operate all of the hospitals in Spokane County, announced they would require vaccinations for employees.

The Washington State Nurses Association, which represents nurses at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, sent Spokane’s largest hospital a cease-and-desist letter, saying such a policy required negotiations with the union before implementation.

At the same time, the WSNA is strongly encouraging nurses to get vaccinated. In a statement to its members at Sacred Heart, the nurses’ union said the new vaccination policy involves hours, wages and working conditions and is subject to bargaining just like any other policy change involving similar conditions.

Providence, which also operates Holy Family Hospital and clinics throughout the region, intends to move forward with the implementation of its new vaccine policy in accordance with Inslee’s mandate, according to a statement it released Monday.

“We fully support Governor Inslee’s decision and look forward to working with our partners in organized labor to ensure that every health care worker in Washington is in compliance with these new requirements,” a statement from Providence said.

MultiCare, which owns Deaconess and Valley hospitals along with Rockwood clinics, anticipates working with its unions to implement the mandate as well.

“MultiCare is engaging with unions representing our employees to share information and discuss the impacts of the governor’s order and MultiCare’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement,” a statement from the provider says.

A letter from the unions representing health care workers reads: “We stand firmly behind vaccination as the best way to save the lives of patients, family members and members of our communities. At the same time, we fully expect employers to bargain with us over this change to working conditions.”

Inslee said the requirement is a binding condition of employment on the employees it affects.

“We do have an obligation to bargain the impacts of that decision and if the unions want to have that discussion, we will have the discussions with union representatives,” he said at news conference Monday. “It’s clearly within the ability and necessity from a life and safety standpoint to make it a requirement. We have thousands of safety regulations in the books.”

Leading up to Inslee’s announcement on Monday, some providers, particularly in the long-term care industry, were hesitant to mandate vaccinations due to staffing shortages and the fear of losing workers.

With hospital capacity as tight as it’s been in months, and with COVID hospitalizations rising, staffing shortages are leading some regions to ask the state for support. The unions echoed these concerns on Monday.

“We are facing an extraordinary staffing crisis in our hospitals and continue to advocate for reasonable deadlines and options for frequent testing as well as masking, as required in all health care facilities, for those who are unvaccinated,” the health care unions’ statement said. “These provisions mirror those included in mandates in other states that allow health care workers to stay on the job caring for all of us through this ongoing crisis. We also know that while the vaccines are incredibly effective, they do not replace PPE, universal masking or other infection control measures. We will continue to demand universal access to N95 masks and push employers to improve ventilation in facilities where needed.”

Details such as how the mandate will affect staffing, how it will be enforced and whether or not employees will be compensated or accommodated for getting their shots will be determined through impact bargaining, according to the governor’s office.

“Impact bargaining means that while the decision is within the authority of the employer, the impacts on just how that decision is implemented is subject to the bargaining obligation,” Mike Faulk, a spokesman in the governor’s office, said in an email.

S-R reporter Laurel Demkovich contributed to this report.

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.