Striking PeaceHealth workers upset by closed facilities

After a one-day strike over contract negotiations on May 14, PeaceHealth workers were not allowed to work on Thursday and Friday.

It wasn’t a surprise – the nonprofit hospital told striking workers that they would not be allowed to work for two days following the strike due to the hospital’s three day obligation with a temporary worker staffing agency.

But that doesn’t explain why some PeaceHealth laboratory workers weren’t allowed to return to their jobs, said Kari Revelstoke, a lab assistant and bargaining member of SEIU Healthcare 1199 NW, which represents about 950 hospital and laboratory workers, including technicians, dietary aides, housekeeping staff, laboratory staff, and other service workers.

Revelstoke showed up to work on Friday at the Barkley Medical Center laboratory and found locked doors and a closed sign in the window. The center’s recorded voicemail message said “Most Bellingham-area patient services are closed due to a strike.”

PeaceHealth didn’t hire temporary workers for its Barkley, Fairhaven, or Cordata laboratories, and instead closed the facilities on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

“I thought since they didn’t hire replacement workers they wouldn’t lock us out,” Revelstoke said, though the hospital did take her key on May 12, the day before the strike.

So Revelstoke went to PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, where five security guards told her she was not allowed on the property because she is striking.

“It’s really upsetting to me that they are closing the labs because they have no reason to. They haven’t replaced us,” Revelstoke said. “They aren’t taking patient care into consideration.”

Bev Mayhew, PeaceHealth spokesperson, said the three day rule was across the board for all striking workers.

“Temporary workers were intended to support core services, including those required at both the hospital and medical group,” Mayhew said in an email. “We could maintain the core services without having to staff the outlying service centers,” she said about the closed laboratories.

PeaceHealth workers, who voted to join the union in 2013, have been negotiating with PeaceHealth for 17 months and have had about 40 bargaining sessions.

Workers joined the union because they were frustrated with their high health insurance costs and stagnating wages.

And striking workers think PeaceHealth can afford to improve the situation. The Bellingham arm of the regional medical group made $50 million last year.

The hospital’s operating costs, however, are nearly $1 million a day, Mayhew said, and extra margins are reinvested in capital improvements and technology.

Eighteen months of negotiating is average for SEIU 1199NW for a first-time contract, Mayhew said. The union represents more than 22,000 healthcare workers in Washington State.

Anita Claymore, who works in environmental services, cited staff retention and staff size as her reasons for striking. Her job involves cleaning vomit, blood and other bodily fluids, and she’s often exposed to infectious disease. New hires in her department make $11.98 an hour, she said, and three co-workers walked off the job mid-shift last week, saying the work was too hard, too intense and didn’t pay enough.

The number of caregivers per patient has changed in the last 10 years at PeaceHealth,  but so have a lot of other factors in health care, Mayhew said.

“There is so much that impacts staffing,” she said. “It can’t be looked at independently from a whole host of other things.”

Mayhew said in an email that the hospital’s turnover rate for the last fiscal year was 12.7 percent, which is below  the national average of 14.5 percent.

Clarence Holmes, a member of the union bargaining team, said national rates aren’t a good barometer for Bellingham.

“When you’re considering wages and cost of living, they vary greatly across the nation, so we don’t consider that a fair standard by which we should be compared,” he said.

PeaceHealth’s most recent contract proposal included wage increases that would average 11 percent for workers within 15 months of signing the contract. Under the proposal, the lowest-paid workers would be able to attain raises more quickly, Mayhew said.

Holmes didn’t give specifics about what the union wanted from the new contract.

“There are still a number of outstanding issues that need to be resolved at the bargaining table,” he said.

Members of the union bargaining team said they made the latest proposal, and PeaceHealth walked away from the bargaining table at 4:45 a.m., on May 8, after 18 hours of negotiating, during the last meeting between the two sides. The union was invited to continue bargaining on Tuesday, but the bargaining team wasn’t released from work, Holmes said.

Currently, the two sides don’t have a date to begin negotiating, but Mayhew said both sides are trying to find one.

“That speaks to both sides’ interests to move forward,” she said.

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