Workers vs. hospital

OLYMPIA - About 500 Providence St. Peter Hospital workers represented by the Service Employees International Union walked off the job Thursday, largely to call attention to rising employee health care costs.

The workers – mostly housekeepers, dietary workers, admitting clerks, health unit coordinators and some licensed practical nurses and surgical technicians – began the strike at 6 a.m. outside the hospital and were expected to continue until midnight. Just before noon, about 60 workers took part in the walkout at Lilly and Ensign roads. Some held signs that read, “Protect patients, not profits,” while other signs read, “Invest in us, invest in patients.”

The one-day strike didn’t affect patient care, hospital spokeswoman Deborah Shawver said.

“We just did rounds to patient floors, and all is well,” Shawver said about 3 p.m. Thursday. “We are very full with 320 patients. We continue to be open to talking in good faith at the bargaining table.”

At issue is an effort by the union to negotiate a new, three-year contract for hospital workers, said SEIU Healthcare 1199NW spokeswoman Lianne Riesen. A previous contract expired in June. A sticking point in the negotiations is a proposal by the hospital to have workers pay for a larger share of family members’ health care costs, according to the union.

Angel Roberson, 37, an emergency room technician, and Kristi Eklund, 35, a health unit coordinator, said that proposal concerns them. Both longtime employees at the hospital took part in Thursday’s strike.

Roberson said her health care covers her spouse and four children, including a son who has asthma and a daughter who has epilepsy. She said she pays $500 a month in health care premiums.

“It’s important to fight for what we deserve, and we deserve affordable health care,” she said.

Eklund, who has three children, said she, too, faces the prospect of higher health care costs. Both her position and Roberson’s pay between $13 and $18 an hour, according to hospital data.

Union spokeswoman Riesen said premiums likely would double or triple for workers under the contract proposal, but hospital officials challenged that assertion.

“The proposal includes an incremental increase of 5 percent per year in costs to employees for dependent coverage in 2011 and 2012,” according to a news release. “Employee premiums for dependent coverage would move from the current contractual rate of 20 percent to 30 percent.”

Other negotiating issues include wages, proposed language that would allow employees to choose whether they want to be dues-paying members of the union, and retirement benefits. Retirement benefits are not going away, hospital officials said. However, the program is moving to a defined-contribution program, like an Individual Retirement Account or 401(k) investment plan, from a defined-benefit program, such as a pension.

Union members also pointed out that the hospital earned $14.2 million through the first six months of the year. Hospital officials acknowledged the “excess revenue” figure as correct (Providence St. Peter is a nonprofit) but also said the hospital faces financial challenges of its own, such as increased problem debt because more people are losing their health care coverage. The hospital has spent $6.9 million this year on charity care, and that is expected to increase.

The union also has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the hospital, claiming that it illegally monitored union activity and threatened to lock out workers.

“We are currently researching what they might be alluding to with regard to illegal observation,” spokeswoman Shawver said. “Providence St. Peter Hospital has at no time threatened a lockout.”

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403