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Kalispell Regional Healthcare: Nurses union negotiations pick up steam

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | October 4, 2020 12:00 AM

In recent weeks, yard signs have popped up throughout the Flathead Valley in support of the nurses union at Kalispell Regional Healthcare, displaying a variety of messages including “We Support KRH Nurses” and “KRH: Put Patients Before Profits.”

In a 372-to-199 vote last July, nurses with Kalispell Regional Medical Center, The HealthCenter, Brendan House and Kalispell Regional Health Clinics voted to unionize in Service Employees International Union Healthcare 1199NW (SEIU).

So it may seem strange to some that signs are only now emerging.

For more than a year now, hospital management and the nurses, along with union representation, have been working to settle their first contract — a process known to last for a year or longer in many cases. But a delay in settling certain aspects of the bargaining agreement, namely wage increases and benefits, prompted nurses to involve the local community in what is normally considered a fairly private process between an employer and its employees.

“When we decided to go public, that was a big step that in and of itself had to be put to a vote with the nurses,” said Andrea Lueck, who has worked as a registered nurse at Kalispell Regional Medical Center for nearly 10 years. “We still are working on negotiations and we felt we needed to push KRH a little bit more to bargain.”

When the nurses recently voted to go public, they decided to launch a petition asking members of the public to join with them in encouraging Kalispell Regional management to do their part in moving the bargaining process along.

The petition, which has been signed by nearly 2,000 individuals, states “we, the nurses at Kalispell Regional Healthcare, with the support of our neighbors in the Flathead Valley community, call on hospital executives to accept our proposed increases to staffing throughout KRH and our plan to give frontline nurses a voice in staffing decisions.”

Lueck said the nurses presented their proposal in March, which included requests that the hospital reinstate charge nurses, increase staffing on all units and provide regular wage increases, among other requests. But as of Friday, Lueck said Kalispell Regional has yet to submit formal, written counter-proposals, though she did say executives have responded verbally to all the elements.

According to Kalispell Reigonal Chief Transformation Officer Cindy Morrison, management has taken issue with certain “economic” proposals, meaning those involving financial investment. As one example, she said the nurses are “demanding wage increases far and above what health-care employees throughout the state are receiving.”

Neither party divulged on record exactly how much the nurses had asked for in wage increases. However, Lueck and others still believe aspects of those proposals are warranted. She said the wages and benefits proposed would likely address the hospital’s issues with recruitment and retention of qualified staff — hurdles many health-care facilities in Montana face.

“KRH is positioning themselves to be a regional leader and we are doing things that no other hospital in Montana is doing, so we have to step up our game to attract experienced nurses,” Lueck said. “We can’t say to prospective employees ‘the views here are awesome, but you’re going to take a pay cut to come work for us.’ Not many people will be on board for that.”

Morrison and Lueck both said while the economic portions of the contract negotiations have arrived at a temporary halt, the non-economic pieces have progressed nicely, including negotiations over definitions, management clause, discipline procedures and job titles.

Morrison added that “it should be expected” that the issues surrounding dollars and cents move slower in the bargaining process.

WHILE THE nurse’s petition garnered widespread support in the Flathead Valley, hospital officials say they are concerned with some of the messages being displayed on yard signs and how those may impact the hospital’s image and connection with the community.

Morrison said hospital staff have also reached out to leadership to express their concerns about the signs. The issue was addressed in a recent organization-wide email from Kalispell Regional Healthcare Chief Executive Officer Craig Lambrecht.

“As we enter the fall I write to you regarding some of the recent union activity in and around the Kalispell campus,” Lambrecht wrote. “We have received a number of phone calls from you expressing your dismay at this activity and some of the associated misinformation. I know and understand that many of you are troubled when you see the unfounded accusations on signs.”

Lambrecht went on to caution that this may only be the start of public union activity.

“Yard signs, picketing, petitions, social media, other types of public pressure tactics and news-generating activities are simply recycled tactics that unions initiate to try and influence our reaction to the bargaining process,” Lambrecht said. “Be assured that we will be thoughtful, fair, and willing to negotiate but will not be influenced by some of the negative activities you are beginning [to] see.”

Lambrecht said the hospital has taken a more direct approach in communicating with the registered nurse workforce regarding concerns about SEIU “tactics” for three primary reasons: to ensure clear communication regarding offers, to share their frustration regarding “lack of preparation” and “unreasonable demands” by SEIU and to reiterate that “no different than the other 3,500 employees, our nurses are valuable members of the KRH family and deserve to know and understand SEIU activities even if they are not on the negotiating team.”

Morrison emphasized Kalispell Regional anticipated measures such as petitions and yard signs and said these are common steps taken by unions, not just SEIU.

But Lueck said adding some public pressure to the process has already yielded positive results.

“With regards to the petition and yard signs, during our last bargaining session it seemed that those methods were effective. They came to the table acknowledging staffing is an issue and expressed a lot of interest in talking more about it, whereas before they really hadn’t,” Lueck said.

THE BARGAINING unit and hospital management have met 11 times since November, but both parties said they are unsure of how much longer it will actually take to wrap up negotiations for the first contract.

The state has set no legal time barriers for when a bargaining agreement must be completed. There are also no federal laws on the matter.

Considering each contract is unique and the time to complete the first one will almost always take longer than future contracts, Morrison said it would be difficult to navigate strict timelines.

Some take as little as a few months to form, while others have been known to take upwards of three years.

When asked if the nurses or employer would be interested in the state adopting a legal time limit, Morrison and Lueck agreed that would only add unwanted stress to the bargaining process.

“In some ways it may be beneficial, but in some ways not,” Morrison said. “On one hand you know where the end game is, but on the other side, some of these are complicated issues that may have far-reaching impacts and I don’t think anyone involved wants to rush those.”

Lueck echoed that statement.

“It’s a learning process for both sides for first contracts, so I don’t think a time limit would be appropriate,” she said. “I think having too much pressure to get it done by a specific deadline would create a tense atmosphere.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com