Medical union calls a strike after Providence cancels negotiations due to coronavirus concerns

The medical union representing Kodiak nurses, physical therapists and other health care workers is going on strike to preserve earned sick leave and vacation benefits.

On Tuesday, Alaska Medical Employee Association negotiators sent a 10-day notice to strike to Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center.

“It’s bad for hospital morale. It’s bad for having a positive working environment. And I think that the issues are really coming from the corporation rather than our, our local hospitals, who have always worked together really well in the past,” said Genevieve Cook, a physical therapist and a member of the AMEA negotiating team.

Union organizer Genevieve Cook and Kristine King at AMEA’s informational picket on Saturday, February 1. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)

Hospital officials say CEO Gina Bishop could not be reached while on vacation, but the hospital’s statement says leadership is “deeply disappointed in the union’s decision to strike.”

Cook and other union members are working to maintain a benefit plan they’ve had for more than ten years. Proposed changes to the plan would mean about 10 working days, or two weeks less paid leave, in exchange for a new short-term disability plan. That plan offers partial pay for sick leave, but only kicks in after an employee has been sick for seven days.

Stalled over the contract dispute, AMEA employees have been working without a firm contract for more than a year. Talks resumed in February, shortly after union members voted to authorize the use of a strike.

“We had a little bit of progress. So that was encouraging. We were not as close as we would have liked to have been to coming to an agreement,” Cook said.

Talks were scheduled to begin again this month, but according to AMEA, Providence cancelled them on Monday, citing business travel restrictions due to coronavirus concerns. According to Teamsters representative Jace Digel, Providence leadership said they wouldn’t be able to meet for 30 to 45 days, an option he said was QUOTE “unacceptable.”

Digel, who asked for his voice not to be broadcast, said the union offered to meet with Providence to find a resolution within the ten days before the strike, but as of Tuesday morning they are unwilling.

In their statement, Providence said the decision to call a strike in the midst of coronavirus concern QUOTE “irresponsible.”

Without nurses, therapists, dieticians, case workers, at work, Providence plans to bring in replacement workers during the strike to keep things running, but they are warning that non-emergency service may be limited.

Hospital staffing is a concern with the global spread of the coronavirus, and while Cook said AMEA workers share concerns about the virus’ threat to Kodiak, she says it’s all the more important that they retain their paid sick leave during this time.

“I would hope that they would have a fully staffed hospital at all times. Our concern is patient care, our concern is the community, our concerned is our employees. So we’ll be watching that as well.”

As of right now, the strike is set to begin on Friday, March 20. AMEA said they’ll call it off if Providence takes the changes to sick leave and vacation off the table. For now, however, both sides are planning for the strike to be indefinite.

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