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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Strike imminent: No more contract negotiations before Providence Sacred Heart tech workers’ work stoppage next week

Both sides are hurdling toward a strike as contract negotiations have halted between Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and the union representing the hospital’s technical workers.

Negotiations broke down late last week when the UFCW 3000 union submitted a 10-day strike notice to Providence. There has not been a contract bargaining session since then and, according to Providence Inland Northwest CEO Susan Stacey, no more negotiations will occur until after the strike ends on April 30. According to her, the preparations required for a strike do not leave Providence the resources or time for bargaining sessions with the union.

“Once we get a strike notice our attention turns from negotiating to preparing. We have to take these ten days to get ready because the primary focus now is being able to take care of our community and staying open and ready for the patients who are going to come through our doors. When the strike is over, we’ll turn our attention right back to getting back to the table and negotiating,” Stacey said Wednesday.

UFCW 3000 President Faye Guenther said in a Wednesday press conference that the union is “ready to bargain” and wants to continue negotiations to avert a strike before it begins next Monday.

“Our bargaining team is ready and willing to get back to the table at any time, but Providence has basically walked away from us,” said Sacred Heart cardiovascular tech and union negotiator Derek Roybal.

The union was “repeatedly told” no negotiations throughout the duration of a strike, Stacey said – adding that the union knew a strike would occur if they submitted a strike notice.

“We didn’t choose this. UFCW chose this,” she said. “Negotiating is about bringing offers back and forth. And the last offer we put on the table, which I believe is a good offer, was rejected and a strike chosen as opposed to bringing a counter. We didn’t make the choice not to bring back a counter. The union made a choice to go on strike.”

Stacey said the proposed contract would have included an across-the-board raise of 7 -9.75 % as well as further increases based upon different job types. This offer was “market competitive” to other hospitals in the region and “respects the expertise and the years of service” of the employees, she said.

That offer would not do enough to recruit and retain employees amid the hospital’s worker shortage, the union said.

“These technical workers from Sacred Heart showed up to the bargaining table fully expecting a fair bargain. They brought proposals intended to help this hospital recruit top talent and keep experienced staff working. From the stress of the global pandemic, perpetual on-call hours and chronically short-staffed departments because the hospital can’t hire enough people, this is a policy choice by Providence and we are sick of it. This can be fixed. This can be fixed if competent management showed up,” Guenther said.

Another sticking point in negotiations were over efforts to cut medical and dental benefits to the workers. Those issues were addressed in Providence’s last offer, Stacey said

According to Roybal, the workers felt a strike was the only way to get a fair deal from Providence.

“We do not take this lightly. We feel we have absolutely no choice but to take these actions for Providence to hear us out,” he said.

What will happen during the strike?

If a contract deal is not reached, the strike at Providence Sacred Heart will begin Monday at 2 p.m. and continue until April 30. Striking workers will hold a rally next Wednesday evening and picket outside the hospital every day between 5:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m.

Though the union wants support from the public during their daily pickets, a union spokesperson said patients who need care should still receive it from Sacred Heart during the strike.

“We know many community members wish to avoid crossing picket lines and Sacred Heart workers do appreciate the solidarity,” spokesperson Ann Minard said. “Community members are welcome to join the line or offer a supportive wave or honk if you pass by. But workers know better than anyone that many departments at the hospital are providing vital and emergency medical services that can be time-sensitive, impact patients’ health and be difficult or impossible to postpone. Striking workers understand patients may need access to medical care they need to stay safe and well.”

Hospital operations will continue as normal during the strike, according to Stacey.

“We are open. We are prepared. We are committed to providing the safe, quality care that they’ve come to expect and frankly our community deserves during the strike,” she said. The hospital will provide “safe entry and exits” to patients so they are not disrupted by picketing workers, she added.

Providence has hired an outside company to provide replacement workers for the duration of the strike. According to Stacey, these workers come from across the country and have the “expertise needed for the complicated care” typically provided by the striking technical workers. The temporary workers will also go through an orientation and skills checkoff before they are allowed to interact with patients. The cost of these workers will be “very expensive” for the hospital, she said.

Guenther said these same workers were used in a similar strike of a Providence facility in Everett, Washington, last year.

“They bought replacement workers in Everett, and it was a mess. It was chaotic and patients were coming out and workers were coming out and telling us what was going on,” she said. The union president also called on these temporary workers to abandon their posts and join them on the picket line.

“Come out with us. Don’t go in there,” she urged.

Union accuses Providence of breaking labor laws

The union has accused Providence of committing several labor law violations during the bargaining process. Allegations include imposing changes to work schedules and attempting to directly bargain with employees outside of the required bargaining process.

Stacey declined to address these allegations but said Providence has “been legal in our approach” to negotiation.

“When the strike is over, those things will get settled. But I am confident that the actions that have occurred are both legal and ethical,” she said.

Speaking at the union media conference Democratic State Rep. Marcus Riccelli called on Providence to follow the law and give their workers a good deal.

I want to echo the members’ call for Providence to do the right thing and respect labor law and treat workers and patients with respect,” he said.

The strike is also being supported by Spokane’s firefighter union.

“For too long corporations and big business in Spokane has taken advantage of their workers disregarded their rights and exploited their labor for profit. But today Local 29 is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with the members of UFCW Local 3000 as they say enough,” said fireman Sean Doyle.

Sacred Heart respiratory therapist Teresa Bowden said Providence’s actions towards the union has been a “slap in the face” to its employees who personally sacrificed for the hospital over the pandemic.

“I’ve been at Sacred Heart for more than 30 years – working through the COVID pandemic as a respiratory therapist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many patients die at one time. It was really hard. It was brutal for everybody in health care. But we kept showing up day after day. And because we care about our patients and they know that they needed us,” Bowden said. “We’re still here because we know the hospital can’t run without us. And it seems like Providence has really forgotten that.”