State Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, this week sent a letter to Olympic Medical Center CEO Eric Lewis and SEIU Healthcare Local 1199NW president Diane Sosne, formally asking each to enter their organizations into binding arbitration to end a long-running labor dispute.
Neither side is pleased by the idea; Sosne says she is reluctantly willing to go to arbitration, while Lewis maintains that arbitration is an inappropriate venue for a public hospital district to settle such disputes.
This isn’t Van De Wege’s first shot at bringing the two sides to the arbitration table. On Feb. 2, Van De Wege, who as a firefighter is a member of a public union, issued a statement calling binding arbitration a fair and final method of resolving the dispute.
At their regular meeting that day, OMC’s board of commissioners unanimously approved a new contract with the 350-plus workers represented by SEIU, saying that the ongoing mediation discussions had reached an impasse. Van De Wege said that decision “further escalated the situation.”
The wrong path
Lewis issued a statement in response to Van De Wege’s new request, saying, “We have significant concerns about designating a non-elected, non-Clallam County resident to the task of sorting through the considerable complexities of health care and making decisions that could literally determine the fate of OMC and health care access for the people in our hospital district.”
Lewis noted that by law the workers don’t have the right to binding arbitration. “The state Legislature does not utilize binding arbitration for public sector employees with the exception of uniformed and statutorily designated employees. OMC is following the negotiation rules in place for public hospitals, which are overseen by a neutral state agency, the Public Employment Relations Commission.”
Sosne also responded to Van De Wege, saying, “In the interest of our patients and our community, we want to work together with you to find a path to resolution. While we have concerns about binding arbitration, we think you make some compelling arguments in support of binding arbitration.”
“The status quo is not acceptable,” she said. “Management’s unilateral implementation undermines our working together for our patients; morale among us is at an all-time low. We are concerned that the lack of resolution has implications for recruitment and retention of nurses and health care workers at our hospital,” Sosne said.
“In the interests of moving forward we are ready to work with you on utilizing binding arbitration as a means of resolving this long-standing dispute.”
A ready response
Van De Wege was prepared for the response from both sides, writing in his letter, “If, as OMC commissioners claim, the hospital’s current financial situation precludes the specific contract terms that health care workers are demanding, the arbitrator will rule in hospital’s favor. I see no risk to OMC whatsoever that it would be required to pay for contracts it cannot afford. Likewise, the union will be able to present its best case and would know, even if it does not prevail, that OMC commissioners acted in good faith to bring this dispute to an end.”
In binding arbitration, both parties are given an opportunity to present evidence and testimony to a third party. The arbitrator’s decision is considered final and very rarely is reconsidered by the courts. Both parties agree to abide by the arbitrator’s decision.
Reach Mark Couhig at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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