After a full day of negotiations on Monday, Dec. 30, Swedish health care workers and management remain at an impasse, and the threat of a strike continues to loom.
In a statement issued Tuesday morning, SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Healthcare 1199NW, which represents the workers, said that “Swedish-Providence’s proposals thus far do not address workers’ serious patient care concerns or fix ongoing unfair labor practices,” and that unless a new agreement is reached soon “workers are still planning to strike.”
“After nine months of negotiations Providence has failed to offer any real commitment to safe patient care and appropriate staffing levels,” said Whittney Powers, a registered nurse in the emergency department at Swedish Edmonds. “On top of refusing to make a meaningful commitment, Providence has proposed to tie our wages to patient metrics that we can’t achieve without appropriate staffing. We feel set up to fail financially and professionally, and we won’t tolerate it.”
One of the union’s unmet requests is increased standby pay. According to the union, workers are currently paid $4.25 per hour for standby, a rate that “has not increased significantly in over 15 years.” The union is also calling for measures to recruit and retain staff, noting that key among these is better pay since currently “Swedish-Providence pays almost 40 percent of its employees below the salary necessary to afford an average one-bedroom apartment in the Seattle area. And the union is asking for increased environmental services staffing levels in order “to provide quality infection control.”
The union also maintains that Swedish management shows an unwillingness to bargain in good faith, alleging that unionized caregivers are targeted for discipline when they speak about workplace problems, “up to and including termination.”
The union says that nurses and caregivers at Swedish voted to authorize a strike in November, and that if a strike is called an estimated 13,000 workers would walk off the job statewide. But it stresses that health care workers’ overarching goal is to achieve a fair union contract and that they are “willing to return to the bargaining table at any time.”
In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Swedish outlined the latest proposals it brought to the table, maintaining that these represent “a strong new package” including a 5.5% pay increase by July 1, 2020 and a $750-per- person ratification bonus “to avert the possibility of a strike.”
“We are dedicated to our caregivers and dedicated to patient safety,” said Swedish Chief Nursing Officer Margo Bykonen. “Throughout this process, we have listened to their concerns. This new package reflects our commitment to providing them outstanding benefits and our desire to settle contract negotiations at the bargaining table.
“We are proud that these proposals continue our longstanding support of our caregivers,” Bykonen continued. “Nurses at Swedish, on average, earn over $96,000 annually. We are committed to providing wages and benefits to make sure Swedish remains a leader among health care employers in the Puget Sound region.”
Management offers included the following:
- Wages: Higher annual wage increases, including a total 5.5% pay increase by July 1, 2020, that consists of a 3% across-the-board wage increase upon ratification and an additional 2.5% increase in July 2020. Swedish also offered a $750 ratification bonus (prorated for caregivers below 0.9 FTE) and a new opportunity to earn additional pay incentives based on quality and patient care. Swedish is offering a four-year wage package that is equivalent to or better than agreements SEIU recently settled with other local health care providers.
- Medical benefits: The new package includes a $0 premium medical plan for full-time caregivers – and their covered family members – who make up to $60,000 in yearly income at Swedish. These caregivers would also receive a $250 FSA contribution each year. Depending on who a caregiver covers, those eligible will save between $850 and $3,000 in yearly premiums. Swedish already offers one of the most affordable medical plans among employers in this market. Its Medical Plan Assistance Program will continue to provide $0 premiums on the PPO plan for full- and part-time caregivers with household income up to 250% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), which is currently $64,375 for a family of four, and 50% of the premium for caregivers with household income up to 400% of the FPL, which is $103,000 for a family of four.
- Short-term disability benefit: Starting in 2021, this benefit, coordinated with the new state Family and Medical Leave Act, will cover 100% of a caregiver’s pay for the first eight weeks (after a seven-day waiting period) and two-thirds of salary for up to 17 more weeks, to ensure caregivers have six month of income protection in the event of their own illness or injury.
- Time-off benefits: Swedish’s proposal would shift to a new time-off benefits program that includes paid time off (PTO), an industry standard, and a Swedish-paid short-term disability and paid parental leave benefit. Under this proposed program, there would be no expiration date for using accrued sick leave.
- Staffing: In partnership with SEIU, we are proposing to create a joint task force focused on recruiting qualified caregivers to fill current vacancies and career opportunities for current caregivers to increase their skills.
- Diversity and inclusion: Swedish has committed to hiring a Chief Diversity Officer, with a caregiver selected by SEIU involved in the selection process.
- Child and elder care: Swedish offered a new back-up child and elder care benefit through Bright Horizons for caregivers who have responsibilities at home caring for children or aging family members.
According to Swedish, staffing continues to be a “top concern” shared by both management and the union, and to this end they proposed to partner directly with SEIU on recruiting and retaining qualified staff and provide professional development pathways. Swedish also points out that caregivers work for Swedish, and that while Swedish is affiliated with Providence St. Joseph Health it operates as its own employer, with its own CEO and leadership team.
As an additional show of good faith, Swedish has offered to pay up to 750 additional hours to cover the time of caregivers who participate in bargaining sessions on behalf of the union, adding that “a strike would be counterproductive and undermine the momentum we are working to build at the bargaining table. We remain optimistic that a strike can be avoided through good-faith negotiations by both parties.”
— Story and photo by Larry Vogel