Hospital workers bring their case to the board

GHCH commissioners hear from union officials about efforts to negotiate new labor contract

Union hospital workers frustrated with the progress of negotiations with Grays Harbor Community Hospital administrators brought their case straight to the elected board of commissioners Tuesday night, filling the meeting room and spilling into the hallway.

And unless there is progress soon, a union leader said, workers will bring their case more directly to the public, in the form of informational picketing outside the hospital.

Talks with hospital officials have gone on since March. In June, the hospital’s proposal was rejected by union members, said John Warring, Unit Representative with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21. “We thought it would get us to making some progress, but it has not,” Warring remarked. “It’s been like a slow boat to China.”

Warring is a microbiologist who has worked at the hospital for nearly 40 years. He was there a few years before the UFCW was. His starting wage was less than $5 an hour — less than the lowest paid unionized mill worker or grocery checker made at the time, he pointed out.

For years, employees have been willing to compromise and only came close to going out on strike in 1992 when the hospital agreed to, then removed, an agreement for premium pay on the weekends.

“In 2010 and 2013 we took minimal wage increases and worked with the employer to stabilize the hospital financially,” Warring said. “And in 2014, when legislation required us to be a public hospital, our union and its members again worked to pass that referendum.”

More than 70 people attended the meeting. Many stood along the walls of the meeting room or listened from outside the door. A large number of them were obviously there to support the employees and wore yellow union T-shirts to let the commissioners see it.

For months, union members have been collecting signatures in support of their efforts to reach an accord with the hospital and presented the commissioners with a 2-inch stack of petitions signed by community members. This is the second collection of signatures since labor negotiations have failed to progress.

Warring told the commissioners that employee recruitment remains difficult because pay and compensation isn’t high enough to attract and retain most rank-and-file employees. Hospital officials maintain that employee compensation is adequate but its laboratories haven’t been fully staffed in two years.

“Folks don’t want to come here,” Warring said. “Money talks. Relocation is expensive.”

Eric Timmons, another high-ranking member of UFCW Local 21 who is a nuclear medicine technologist at the hospital, told the commissioners that unless there is significant progress by the end of the next meeting between union and hospital representatives the union will arrange to conduct informational picketing outside the hospital. That meeting is scheduled on Dec. 1.

“We don’t want to bring a black eye to the hospital, but we don’t want to see a sub-par contract,” Timmons said. “Ultimately, we need to see a better contract proposal from the hospital. We need to see a better insurance proposal from the hospital.”

Timmons said after the meeting that he and other union members have their fingers crossed now that the commissioners knows what has been going on. The union presentation being on the same agenda as an executive session related to a performance review for Hospital Chief Executive Officer Tom Jensen might have provided the board members an opportunity to discuss the matter with him, which might help the negotiations finally advance, he theorized.

A couple of citizens spoke at the end of the meeting about the hospital’s struggle to keep doctors in the community.

“I ask the board to dig a little deeper and ask questions,” said Rachel Bigby, who described the decreasing number of physicians practicing here as “approaching crisis level.”