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Strike at Deaconess and Valley Hospitals? Service and tech workers mull labor action amid stalled contract negotiations

Support staff at MultiCare Deaconess and Valley hospitals are prepared to strike as soon as next month should their contract demands not be met.

Union membership at the hospitals authorized their bargaining team to call for a strike to try and collect wage increases in a new contract.

“The power of a strike authorization shows MultiCare how serious we are about this contract and how much our coworkers are willing to stand up for what we need,” said Deaconess Certified Nursing Assistant and bargaining team negotiator Shawn Crawford. “This shows them that we are serious. We are not afraid to do what it takes to get what we need.”

Affiliated with SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, the union is made up of approximately 1,400 workers between the two hospitals. These primarily include technical workers. Nurses at Valley Hospital are also included in the union.

Negotiations for a new contract began in August and have included 15 bargaining sessions. The two parties will meet for negotiations on Monday and Wednesday. According to Crawford, the union hopes to come to an agreement in those meetings and avoid a strike.

“Our goal is not to strike. We don’t want to put our families or even our patients at risk due to a strike occurring,” he said. “We’re hoping we can make lots of movement and come to an agreement or at least get really close to one. But we’ll do what we need to do.”

In a statement, MultiCare said they will continue to negotiate with the union in good faith.

“MultiCare and our Inland Northwest leadership continues to bargain in good faith with SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, with the shared goal of reaching a fair contract that positions our employees and our hospitals for the future,” MultiCare spokesperson Kevin Maloney said in a statement.

After the initial contract expired last December, MultiCare and the union agreed to a month-to-month contract while negotiations continue. To call for a strike, the union would need to allow the monthly contract to expire and then give MultiCare a 10-day notice of their intent. Based on this timeline, the earliest a strike could occur is sometime in April.

What do the workers want?

Central to the dispute is workers’ contention that salaries at MultiCare are not competitive with other health care workers in the Spokane region. Other disputes include health care and time-off benefits.

According to Crawford, a CNA like him makes 15.5% less at Deaconess than he would at the same job at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

In his statement, Maloney said MultiCare is “committed to investing in market-competitive wages and benefits for our teams.”

According to Crawford, MultiCare “doesn’t care” if their workers can pay their bills.

“They’ve said they only care about being market competitive, not market leaders,” he added.

The union has demanded a 6% cost-of-living wage increase across the board and further increases for each different type of employee represented. Depending upon how much a given job’s salary is below market rate, these demands could be as much as 11%. According to Crawford, MultiCare has previously agreed to the 6% cost-of-living adjustment but only offered minimal market-rate increases.

Staffing shortages from these pay disparities create an unmanageable workload for the employees who stay, a union spokesperson said.

“There is not an earnest effort to recruit and retain experienced caregivers,” SEIU Healthcare 1199NW communications director Kenia Escobar said. “Ultimately, the workers want to make sure they have enough resources and staff to provide quality care, and it’s very hard for them to do that when they don’t have the staff available.”

Crawford believes MultiCare has the money to pay more for its staff, but chooses instead to “focus solely upon expansion.” He pointed to a power outage that occurred Sunday at Deaconess Hospital where he works – claiming backup generators did not provide power for an extended period

“To me it was just an example of MultiCare focusing so hard on expansion versus investing in the hospitals that they currently own,” he said.

According to Maloney, the outage was caused by a powerline failure and left the hospital in divert status – meaning ambulances would be diverted to another facility.

“Generator power was used and by late afternoon power was restored and the divert status was lifted,” Maloney said of the Sunday afternoon outage.

Crawford called the incident a wakeup call for MultiCare to take better care of its facilities.

“Deaconess is an old hospital and very special to the Spokane community. No one in our community wants to see something happen to Deaconess, and it would be in MultiCare’s best interest to make sure nothing happens to such a Spokane landmark,” he said.


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