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Logan Health prepares for imminent nurses' strike after talks stall

by MATT BALDWIN and CHAD SOKOL Daily Inter Lake
| May 27, 2021 6:00 PM

Unionized nurses at Logan Health, formerly Kalispell Regional Healthcare, are not backing down from their pledge to mount a three-day strike starting June 1. The hospital system's administration is working to ensure adequate staffing during the walkout.

The union representing about 650 of Logan Health's nurses, SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, said Thursday that management "walked away from the table early Wednesday morning rather than respond to key proposals." The union, formed in July 2019, has been negotiating for a contract for the last year and a half, calling for increased staffing, reinstating a charge nurse on every unit, a nurse staffing committee, and improvements to wages and benefits.

"After 19 months of negotiations, Logan Health still has not committed to making changes that would help stop the drain of nurses from the Flathead Valley," registered nurse Cindy Hinzman said in a statement. "We stayed at the bargaining table late into the night, waiting seven hours for management to offer a counter on our staffing, wages and benefits proposals. They came back, offered no changes on those important issues and said they won't bargain with us again for another two weeks. We would have kept bargaining, but management chose to walk away."

Nurses threatened to strike as they headed into a bargaining session earlier this month and delivered a formal notice last Friday.

The union sent a letter to Logan Health CEO Craig Lambrecht on Thursday stressing a willingness to return to the bargaining table "to come to an agreement on a fair union contract and avert the planned unfair labor practice strike."

The union said its nurses are "faced with an impossible choice: continue working in a system we believe does not allow us to provide the best care we can for our patients, or consider walking off the job to demonstrate the gravity of our situation.

In response, Logan Health issued a statement seeking to assure patients it will have nurses available to work. Hospital officials said more than 150 nurses have offered to work during the strike, with former employees offering to pitch in as needed. Physicians and nurse practitioners also have volunteered to assist with nursing duties.

Additionally, more than 100 nurses who were scheduled to work on the days of the strike have committed to fulfilling their shifts, and others who were not scheduled have volunteered to work, according to Logan Health.

"Being dedicated to a higher calling at times such as this is when you see the incredible professionals who we are proud to walk along side," Ryan Pitts, Logan Health's chief nursing officer, said in a statement.

IN A NEWS release Thursday, SEIU said Logan Health management "continues their intensive efforts to weaken the nurses' resolve to stand together as a union," and noted investigations underway by the National Labor Relations Board.

"The NLRB is currently investigating the retaliatory termination of a union nurse, and SEIU Healthcare 1199NW has filed more than 10 other unfair labor practice charges against Logan Health for its illegal union-busting efforts," the union said. "It is a violation of federal labor law for an employer to discriminate in hiring, assignments or discipline based on a worker's union activities; to retaliate against or terminate workers for union activity; to surveil union activities or intimidate and chill workers' freedom to engage in union activities; or to use company resources to campaign for decertification of a union, among other things."

Meanwhile, Logan Health has accused SEIU of using inappropriate pressure tactics during negotiations, including undermining patient relationships seeking to cost the employer money. Hospital officials also assert staffing ratios are above "industry norms" and that registered nurse turnover at Logan Health is at 16%, lower than the national average of 18.7%.

"Our focus will remain on patients even while being constantly forced to clarify the SEIU spin on everything we say," Lambrecht said in a March 28 letter. "Patients should never be a bargaining chip for SEIU."

SOME LOGAN Health nurses have banded together in opposition to the union strike as a group calling itself Nurses and Community Unite. The group has accused SEIU of "denying nurses right to vote, stalking, not maintaining a sterile balloting area and taking pictures of voters for retaliation purposes."

Registered nurse Shiela Stencel said the informal group of nurses and concerned community members came about earlier this year after receiving what she described as "mixed messages" from SEIU leadership.

"We all want to do our jobs without the drama … and negativity and deception," Stencel told the Daily Inter Lake on Thursday. "We don't feel we can do that with what is currently going on."

Stencel said she wasn't certain how many Logan Health employees shared her view but said registered nurses are predominately leading the group's discussions.

Earlier this week, the group said one of its members had filed a formal complaint against SEIU with the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Labor Management and Standards, alleging union leaders inappropriately pressured members to vote for their desired outcome.

Stencel's group provided a copy of the May 23 complaint with the name of the nurse redacted due to concerns about retaliation. It states: "The coercive atmosphere in the balloting area was blatant in order to get the outcome the SEIU wanted."

The complaint requests the Office of Labor Management and Standards open an investigation into the union's conduct and nullify the strike election.

A Labor Department spokesperson said the agency could "neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation."

Stencel said nurses opposed to the strike plan to work during the walkout next week.

"We're all working and have picked up shifts all over to help out," she said. "We don’t want to leave patients without a nurse."