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Hospital and service workers stuck in negotiations over wages, staffing levels

  • Written by Briana Gerdeman

Public hospital officials at EvergreenHealth and union representatives from SEIU Healthcare 1199 NW have been bargaining over the service workers’ employment contract for close to a year without reaching an agreement. Wages, staffing levels and the continuing education program are all points of contention.

SEIU 1199 NW, the statewide union of the Service Employees International Union, says management’s priorities aren’t in line with those of first providers, saying employees face unsafe staffing conditions and need higher pay to be able to support their families. They cite Evergreen CEO Bob Malte’s 18 percent salary increase in 2013 as a comparison.
Evergreen, on the other hand, says wages for both the employees and the CEO compare favorably with the market rate for other local hospitals, and that staffing and education are in a better state than what the union has portrayed.
SEIU’s bargaining unit at Evergreen is made up of about 750 employees, including nursing assistants, food service workers, cleaning staff and administrative positions. Their employment contract renews every two to three years. The most recent contract expired in October 2013, and in the past 10 months of negotiations between the union and the hospital, the bargaining teams have met 15 times, EvergreenHealth CEO Bob Malte said.

Through its main campus in Kirkland, as well as primary and urgent care facilities in Woodinville, Canyon Park, Kenmore, Redmond, Duvall and Sammamish, EvergreenHealth serves much of the Eastside.

“As a public institution that is funded by taxpayers like me, I am disappointed to see the direction Evergreen is headed,” Kim Steinbaugh, a cook at Evergreen and a member of SEIU, told the board of directors at last week’s meeting. “...We have been hoping for change, hoping to be heard, but the hospital’s leadership has been telling us over and over again that we’re not important. What’s important to the hospital are big executive salaries, over 40 times what many of my co-workers make, and new architecture that makes Evergreen look more like a shopping mall than a patient care center.”

Staffing levels

According to the union, staffing levels are too low. As a result, employees say they have to skip breaks and work through lunch. There’s a high turnover rate among employees, but the workload remains the same, so those who stay are expected to do more. Caregivers can’t answer call lights quickly, and can’t give patients enough care and hygiene, while housekeeping staff has too many rooms to clean, the union says.

“We are really short on staff, and so that makes the patient load really intense, where we don’t get our breaks, we don’t get to spend our time with our patients,” said Camie Aitmessaoud, who has worked at Evergreen for eight years as a unit tech in the maternity department.

When she started working there, she and a nurse would be responsible for tending to five couplets (mother and baby pairs) at a time. Now, she’s responsible for 12 couplets herself.

“I don’t feel that Evergreen is moving in the right direction as far as patient safety, because when you have that much responsibility, there’s going to be falls,” she said.

Andrea Eisenbarth, a patient support assistant at Evergreen for 15 years and a shop delegate for SEIU, focused on how employees are affected by short staffing.

“It’s affecting morale, when you can’t care for patients and you can’t answer your call light. People are getting injured because they’re trying to do things too quickly,” she said. But she emphasized, “The hospital is not unsafe for patients, but it does have unsafe staffing conditions.”

Bob Sampson, EvergreenHealth’s vice president of human resources, said the hospital’s staffing levels compare favorably with industry-wide and local standards.

“We want to make sure we have adequate staffing levels….We take it seriously,” he said.

Malte said employees can take staffing concerns to their director and manager first, then to staffing committees.
“We work very hard to make sure all our employees get their appropriate breaks. We monitor it and we measure it. If there’s a missed break, they get compensated for it,” he said.

Wages

The most recent offer proposes a 1 percent raise for SEIU employees in the first year of the contract (which would apply retroactively from October 2013), a 1.25 percent raise in the second year and a 1 percent raise in the possible third year of the contract. Employees also get “step increases” of 2 to 2.5 percent almost every year based on how long they’ve worked at Evergreen.

Both employee salaries and Malte’s salary — $700,000 base salary or slightly less than $1 million total compensation in 2013, an 18 percent increase from the previous year; and $714,000 in 2014, a 2 percent increase — are based on market rates compared with other local hospitals, Malte said.

“If any business is going to be successful — which we want to be successful in all dimensions, and the most important are clinical outcomes and safety — you’re going to have to pay people on a competitive basis,” he said.
Still, the average hourly wage of less than $15 for employees in the bargaining unit doesn’t cover the cost of living and allow employees to support their families, Eisenbarth said.

Education

SEIU wants Evergreen to join the union-sponsored Multi-Employer Training Fund, which provides tuition assistance, professional development, tutoring and career counseling to employees.

Instead, during the last contract negotiations three years ago, the hospital created its own training fund, with a budget of $100,000 per year and the goal of making sure the money is used only by Evergreen employees, Malte explained. Since the fund’s inception, Evergreen has spent $175,000 on the 57 employees who have accessed the fund.
The union is once again asking Evergreen to join the Multi-Employer Training Fund, saying it offers services the Evergreen training fund doesn’t and is easier to use. Employees say Evergreen’s training fund isn’t advertised well, is hard to access on an internal website and only offers tuition reimbursement.

The Multi-Employer Training Fund offers up-front tuition payment rather than just reimbursement, one-on-one counseling from start to finish, English as a second language classes and computer classes.

“It’s a hand-holding from start to finish,” Steinbaugh said. “...It’s a lot easier for someone who’s going back to school as an adult.”

Evergreen will also pay up-front, Sampson said, and Malte said the hospital has offered to commit additional money for career counseling.

What next?
SEIU and Evergreen are still negotiating with the help of a third-party mediator. A date for the next bargaining session has not been set, Malte said.

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