News

Disgruntled OMC workers say they’ll walk

by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
Sequim Gazette

Pending a quick breakthrough in contract negotiations, 350-plus Olympic Medical Center workers will go on strike at 6 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 11.

 

The called 18-hour strike of members of SEIU 1199NW would result in the temporary absence of Olympic Memorial Hospital’s registered and licensed practical nurses, much of the service and maintenance staff and dozens of dietary workers.

 

OMC management is working with temporary agencies to find and hire 150 workers.

 

OMC CEO Eric Lewis said the workers will be flown in, housed and receive at least two days of prior orientation training — all at OMC’s expense. He now estimates the total cost for replacing the striking workers at $600,000.

 

Lewis said hospital managers continue to bargain in good faith, “but we must maintain sustainable margins. And our patients need affordable care.”

Predicting the future

Lewis said OMC’s current financial woes are likely to worsen in the next three years, making the union’s demands untenable. He cited the “big issues” faced by the health care system, including the “great recession,” high unemployment on the peninsula, state budget cutbacks and federal health care reform, saying all will reduce the system’s revenues significantly.

 

Laura Joshel, OMC employee relations coordinator, agreed there are a number of “outstanding issues” that must be further negotiated before a contract can be drawn up. She listed them: wages, insurance premiums, rules regarding subcontractors and minimum staffing guidelines.

 

“We have a significant gap to bridge, but we’re committed to bridging the gap,” she said.

 

The management team also was quick to point out that in the past three years the average wage for RNs at the hospital has risen from $38.19 an hour in 2007 to $43.20 in 2010. Lewis said the union believes similar raises are in order.

 

“SEIU thinks the recession is over. We do not. We believe tougher times are ahead,” Lewis said.

 

OMC has taken the matter to court. When local judges recused themselves in the matter, OMC filed a motion for a restraining order in a Kitsap court, seeking to halt the strike.

 

The judge is expected to hear more on the motion this morning, Wednesday, Aug. 3.

 

Lewis says OMC’s legal team will argue that, “It is illegal for public workers to strike.” He also pointed to a clause in the contract with SEIU 1199 that specifically bans strikes by workers.

On the other hand

Virginia Majewski, a registered nurse with OMC for “30-plus years,” said she still is hoping the contract negotiations can be completed before the strike is called. She said another union/management negotiating session has been scheduled for Aug. 4.

 

The strike “is not something we want to do — it’s a position they put us in,” she said. “We don’t believe they’re negotiating in good faith.”

 

Majewski pointed out that the union contract under which the nurses and service workers are operating expired eight months ago. The hospital’s dietary workers now are negotiating their first contract. She said the provisions of the contract outlawing strikes expired with the contract.

 

“We gave the hospital a minimum 10-day notice (of the strike) — in fact we gave them more than a 10-day notice,” Majewski said. “That gives us time to get a settlement or it gives them notice to provide adequate services (to patients). We specifically did that because it’s the right thing to do,” Majewski said.

 

While OMC officials continue to cite declining revenues, Majewski isn’t as certain.

 

“I don’t think any of us can predict what will happen. And they’ve tied any raises to federal funding. That’s like taking it to a casino,” she said.

Salary and benefits

Raises are an issue, Majewski said, but raises aren’t at the heart of the disagreement. “Its benefits and safe staffing,” she said.

 

Majewski said she and her union colleagues are upset about cuts in medical care coverage. To this point, OMC has paid 100 percent of the cost of health insurance for hospital employees and their dependents. The changes proposed by management would require workers to pay a portion of the premiums for their dependents, with part-time workers particularly hard hit.

 

Majewski also cited the hospital’s failure to meet its own staffing rules. “It’s not uncommon for guidelines not to be followed,” she said, saying that produces less safe conditions for patients and more burnout among workers.

 

“They need to be held accountable,” she said.

 

Lewis said that each department has a staff committee that establishes optimal staffing numbers. “We’re committed to that,” he said. “But simply hiring a bunch of nurses isn’t an adequate way to ensure we’re ... adequately staffed.”

 

The two parties already are engaged in mediation through Washington’s Public Employees Relation Commission, a process they jointly requested.

 

 

Reach Mark Couhig at mcouhig@sequimgazette.com.

 

 

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