Five days before a strike, AMEA likely to vote “no” on a Providence contract proposal

At Kodiak’s only hospital, nurses, physical therapists and medical support staff are preparing to strike on Friday. A medical union announced last week the intent to strike after Providence asked to delay negotiations by 30-45 days to allow time to prepare for coronavirus spread.

Demonstrators outside the Providence Kodiak hospital hold signs reading “Hands off my sick leave” and “Honk for fair contract.” (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)

A recent contract proposal includes a yearly raise of about 2 percent for employees, but the sticking point is over sick leave. Genevieve Cook is a physical therapist and a part of the Alaska Medical Employees Association negotiating team in Kodiak. As Providence St. Joseph Health moves to transfer its network of hospitals across the country to a new sick leave plan, Cook and other organizers in Kodiak are fighting to keep the old plan in place.

“It works out to be a cut any way you run the program,” Cook said.

The new plan would offer about two weeks less paid time off in exchange for a short-term disability leave plan to cover part of an employee’s pay after they have been sick for seven days.

Last week, Providence asked to postpone contract negotiations, which have continued for over a year, saying the hospital needed to focus on its coronavirus response. AMEA representatives called the postponement “unacceptable,” but said they would be willing to delay negotiations if Providence were to take the new sick leave plan off the table.

In a statement, Providence called the timing of the strike decision “irresponsible”, as the rapid spread of the coronavirus is putting the state on high alert for new cases.

“The decision to strike at this time was really both a shock and very disappointing, especially with our offer to temporarily suspend the negotiations until the current public health concern, you know, has passed, or is at least at a point where everyone feels comfortable,” said hospital CEO Gina Bishop.

In its proposal last Wednesday, Providence offered some other benefits, including a delayed start to the new sick leave plan and a special type of leave for traveling off island.

Bishop declined to comment on the apparently significant loss of paid time off over time for most employees.

Cook, who says union members won’t hesitate to go back to work if COVID-19 cases in Kodiak become a serious concern, argues that contract negotiations have been in the works for well over a year, and that paid sick leave is all the more important at a time when medical professionals are at significant risk.

“It is not a good time to go on strike,” she admitted. “We do not want to go on strike and we never wanted to go on strike. We’ve been doing this exact same progress for well over a year. I would tell you that their strategy is ill-timed at a time when it’s more important than ever to have flexible, available sick leave.”

At a meeting of AMEA members last week, Cook walked through examples of how the proposal from Providence would affect employees over time, showing that most workers could potentially lose hundreds of hours of paid time off compared to their current benefits.

“The new proposal is a little bit better than any of the proposals that we’ve been working on before. It’s just nowhere near the current benefits that we receive.”

Cook says union members appear likely to vote “no” on Providence’s proposal.

As of Monday, the strike is still set to begin on Friday. Bishop says the hospital is bringing in replacement workers from off-island, who will be ready to go as soon as the strike begins. She declined to comment on how management plans to staff the hospital if the strike continues long term.

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