Following more than 15 months of negotiations, the 350-plus Olympic Medical Center workers represented by Service Employees International Union have a new contract — but they aren’t happy about it.
During their meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 1, the OMC board of commissioners voted unanimously to establish a new contract with the workers, overriding the objections of more than a dozen union workers and other supporters in attendance at the meeting. Following the vote, most of the union workers and supporters immediately walked out of the meeting, but not before some expressed their disgust with the board’s action.
The two sides had been engaged for several months in mediation through Washington’s Public Employees Relation Commission (PERC), a process they jointly requested. OMC CEO Eric Lewis said the board’s decision to impose a contract was made following a series of increasingly frustrating mediation sessions.
Lewis said at the Jan. 27 mediation meeting the union workers asked for a 10-percent raise over two years and a continuation of the 10-percent employer contribution to their retirement package.
Lewis said a recent survey of area hospitals showed that package would provide benefits well in excess of what other area hospitals are providing.
The new package approved by the board is, he said, equal or superior to the package provided to the balance of OMC’s approximately 1,100 employees, including management.
Under the new contract, full-time workers (0.8 “full-time equivalent” or greater) will continue to receive health insurance coverage for themselves at no cost and will continue to pay half the premium for a spouse ($262.79 a month). They also will be responsible for 15 percent of the cost of health care coverage of their children ($59.13 monthly).
OMC reduced its contribution to the employees’ retirement plan from 10 percent to 5 percent and will match up to another 2 percent.
RNs and LPNs will receive a first-year pay increase of 3 percent, while the service employees will receive a 3.5-percent bump. Dietary employees will receive a 4-percent increase.
Both Lewis and board member John Nutter, a former finance director for the health care system, said the cuts were necessary. Both pointed to likely reductions in Medicare and state reimbursements for health care services. Those will hit the local system particularly hard, Nutter said, noting the percentage of government-paid patients at OMC is much higher than at many other hospital systems. “Every hospital will feel the pain,” Nutter said, “but we have three-quarters of our business being cut.”
Lewis said the cuts will help OMC avoid layoffs and cutting programs. “We’re not going to lay off to pay above-market benefits,” he said.
“If we were for-profit, it would be different,” Lewis said. “But we’re a community hospital.”
Nutter summed up his decision, saying, “We can’t afford what the Seattle union wants us to pay.”
Both pointed to a new “financial stability plan,” approved by board at the same meeting, that will slash $3 million from the current budget for 2012, and both said the plan may not cut enough to meet the reductions in government funding that may be coming.
Lewis and Nutter also agreed that negotiations with the union should and will continue.
Diane Sosne, president of the 22,000-member SEIU Healthcare 1199 Northwest, said hospital workers are unhappy.
“We’re very disappointed and disturbed that the employer and the board and the hospital administrator and team have chosen to unilaterally impose a contract instead of using a collective bargaining process to come up with the contract,” Sosne said.
“That’s a right we have in this country — to bargain.”
Sosne said the decision will have implications for patients of the system. “I think what’s alarming for the community is that, when you go to the hospital, the last thing you need to worry about is 1) poor staffing and 2) that the nurses that are taking care of you feel they are properly treated by their employer. The fact that they walked away doesn’t send a good message to the community.”
The decision also sends the message, Sosne said, that management hasn’t “been able to get the respect and confidence of their front-line staff.”
“Why would you want to be the CEO of a hospital where the people who work for you don’t respect you?” she asked.
Sosne said she and the workers are all aware OMC is facing “tough times,” but said that was taken into account in negotiations. “It’s not in our union’s best interest to have a contract that will put the employer out of business,” she said.
Sosne said the union has asked OMC management to return to the bargaining table, adding, “We’re willing to stay at the table however long it takes.”
Sosne said the union also is investigating other remedial means. “We will also pursue whatever legal rights our members have,” she said. “Just because the employer took the illegal action to do this, the dispute doesn’t go away.”
She added, “What’s more important to our members and the patients is that we have a correct bargaining agreement that ensures the patients have correct care, that employees have a correct contract that enables them to do the work and that we have a track record of settling disputes.”
Sosne added that the union has filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the Public Employment Relations Commission, with a hearing scheduled in March.
“We are evaluating other options in terms of community outreach,” she said.
On Feb. 2, Washington Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, joined the fray, issuing a statement calling for both sides to agree to binding arbitration to settle the dispute.
“This stalemate has persisted far too long and is dividing our community at a time when we need to be standing together,” Van De Wege said.
Sosne said, “We’re evaluating his recommendation and we’ll be talking with him about that, and we’ll have an announcement coming up soon with our response.”
Sosne said arbitration would bring in a neutral third party to determine the settlement, a prospect she expressed little enthusiasm for.
“In a tough economic time, they are generally against employees,” she said.
She noted that by law, the union currently doesn’t have the right to binding arbitration, though that right is extended to other public employees, including public safety workers.
Sosne also discussed the November 2011 restraining order issued by a Kitsap court that precludes a workers’ strike at the hospital, saying, “We believed we had the right to strike, but the court in a misguided fashion rules against that.”
Sosne concluded, “We would prefer to sit down with the employer and work it out.”
Surprised by the vote
Ginny Majewski, a registered nurse at the hospital and one of the members of the bargaining team, said she was surprised by the board’s decision. “We feel that it’s really kind of unconscionable,” she said. “We really want to sit down at the table with them in having a say in improving staffing. We feel that’s the right thing to do for our patients, nurses and other health care workers.”
“We’re very disheartened that they don’t value and respect the role we play,” Majewski said, “and we’re rather appalled at the tactics they’re taking and we don’t feel they’re negotiating in good faith.”
She said now that the decision has been made, “It’s unpleasant at work — it’s created a lot of tension at the workplace.”
But, she added, “In health care we have to work as a team. We have to put our differences aside and I think we do that very well. Do we like it? No, but we all have to work together. It’s a team effort to provide health care to those who come through the doors.”
Reach Mark Couhig at email@example.com.