By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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PORT ANGELES — State Rep. Kevin Van De Wege addressed pickets at Olympic Medical Center on Thursday, telling them they’re “fighting for their rights and for a fair contract.”
“That’s important for the hospital. It’s important for Port Angeles, said Van De Wege, D-Sequim, to Service Employees International Union Healthcare 1199NW workers and supporters at an organized picket.
Van De Wege, whose 24th District covers the North Olympic Peninsula, is also a unionized firefighter and paramedic for Clallam County Fire District No. 3 in Sequim.
He said he has a lot in common with the hospital employees who are trying to secure better health care benefits and guaranteed staffing levels in their contracts.
“A big part of that job is making sure we have safe staffing, and with that safe staffing, we’re able to provide good patient care,” Van De Wege said.
“That’s something that I think is vital to the hospital.
“Keep up that fight.”
Van De Wege, D-Sequim, is a former union representative for the fire district. He has received campaign contributions from unions around Western Washington in his two campaigns for state representative.
SEIU originally planned an 18-hour walk-out for Thursday, but a Kitsap County Superior Court Judge granted a temporary restraining order on the grounds that the threatened strike was illegal.
The strike would have cost the public hospital district $600,000 to fly in 150 replacement workers and train them, Chief Executive Officer Eric Lewis had said.
“One thing that I find most troubling is that Mr. Eric Lewis has chosen not to come to the negotiating table,” Van De Wege said.
“If we’re on the verge of a strike, the CEO, the person in charge of this hospital, should be making every effort to avert that.”
Van De Wege said safe staffing levels and health care benefits are “critical” for the hospital.
“We’ll continue to pressure the hospital and the community to settle this contract,” he said.
Linda Barnfather, Van De Wege’s legislative assistant, spoke later in the rally about the importance of patient care.
“I come from a health care background,” said Barnfather, whose parents owned a nursing home.
“My parents taught me that no matter what, we never sacrifice patient care or how we treated our employees.”
Barnfather, who is running against Port of Port Angeles Commissioner Jim McEntire for Clallam County commissioner, said affordable health care is a “big piece” in the ongoing negotiations between the hospital and SEIU.
“We’re a rural community, we have spiraling costs, and we really want you taken care of,” Barnfather told the union members.
“Let’s get this done.”
Nearly 70 members of Service Employees International Union Healthcare 1199NW held signs and shouted for guaranteed staffing levels and better health care benefits in their contacts. More workers picketed throughout the day on their breaks.
Their message was directed to Chief Executive Officer Eric Lewis and the seven publicly elected commissioners, none of whom were present for the rally across the street from the hospital.
“We need you to step up and take steps to settle a fair contract by agreeing to our key issues, which are affordable health care and guaranteed staffing,” said Margaret Cary, an emergency room nurse and chief negotiator for SEIU.
The union’s contract with the hospital expired in October. Negotiations have been stalled on issues of health care costs and staffing levels.
SEIU represents more than 350 OMC employees, mostly registered nurses and dietary and service workers. OMC has other union-represented employees who are not affiliated with SEIU.
OMC is Clallam County’s largest employer, with more than 1,000 workers.
“The whole thing was started with safe staffing to protect the people in the community, and it’s spiraled into ‘You’re greedy,’” said Bill Loomis, a 35-year OMC employee who picketed with two dozen others during the lunch hour.
“It’s a negative spin that Eric Lewis has put on this,” Loomis added.
“Most of his numbers are just half truths and half lies.”
Lewis has repeatedly stressed that the hospital will go broke if it doesn’t control its costs.
He said OMC and other hospitals are struggling with the bad economy and uncertainties over the future of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements and health care reform.
Hospital officials said current staffing levels and proposed health care benefits are competitive with other hospitals around the state.
Efforts to obtain the actual proposals from OMC and the union were unsuccessful.
“The hospital needs to hear our staffing concerns and guarantee staffing in our contract,” said Christy Wright, an emergency room nurse who criticized the Peninsula Daily News at the rally for what she called unbalanced coverage of the negotiations
“In the ER alone, we’ve had 20 to 40 unfilled shifts every month for most of this year,” Wright said.
“That kind of short staffing means that critical-care patients are stuck waiting for treatment.
“It also means that nurses get stretched thin covering too many patients,” she added.
“We need guaranteed staffing levels for the sake of all our patients.”
Picketers said there are usually five to seven nurses on a given shift at OMC’s 24-hour emergency room. That translates to 150 to 210 eight-hour shifts per month.
Loomis said the staffing levels have been a “chronic” problem at the hospital.
“It’s not acceptable for patient safety,” Cary added.
Chief Nursing Officer Lorraine Wall responded to the union claims in a Thursday statement.
“These allegations about ER staffing are untrue,” Wall said.
“Our standard of care is that we triage our critical patients so they receive immediate care and attention.
“This sudden public focus on ‘guaranteed staffing in our contract’ is a common — but unsuccessful — SEIU pressure tactic,” Wall said.
“There is a reason that no other hospital in Washington state has agreed to SEIU’s proposals in this area.”
In a 40-minute interview last week, Lewis said the staffing claims are “unfounded and misleading.”
He said OMC hires staff to meet patient needs as best as those needs can be anticipated.
■ OMC constantly recruits staff to fill vacancies and periodically adds new positions to keep up with growth.
■ Patient volumes change significantly at a rural, regional hospital, but OMC manages the challenge well.
■ OMC uses unit-based staffing committees to analyze capacity data and responds quickly.
“Assuring safe, quality patient care isn’t measured by a guaranteed number; it is a level that we evaluate constantly throughout the day as it reflects changes in the number of patients we actually have and just how ill or injured our patients actually are,” Wall said.
Wages and benefits
Some union members took issue with Lewis’ earlier claim that the average full-time nurse earns more than $100,000 in wages and benefits.
“His numbers are the exception; they aren’t the rule,” Loomis said.
Cary added: “Of our membership, there are dietary workers who make $1,300 a month. There are CNAs, certified nursing assistants, who make $1,700 a month.”
Employees would continue to pay noting for their own health care under OMC’s current proposal.
OMC is asking employees to pay 25 percent, or about $95 per month, to cover their children. Children were fully covered under the old agreement.
“When they say it’s $95 — no,” Cary countered.
“The health care premium went up 16 percent last year, so when you talk about 25 percent of the premium, that’s going to go up.
“So when they cite this $95, that’s not a real number. That’s not management’s proposal.”
Cary said heath care costs will rise even more for part-time workers. She said OMC’s proposal will add to charity care for the hospital.
Dan Grimes, a materials management employee, said most OMC workers live paycheck to paycheck.
He said the increase to health care premiums, which are the same for management, will be easier for his bosses to absorb because they make more money.
“We just want it to be fair and equitable,” Grimes said.
“We want to take care of the patients, and we just want to be able to take care of our families.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-417-3537 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.