Nearly one year without a firm contract, Kodiak medical workers’ union votes to authorize a strike

Nurses, therapists, support staff and community members demonstrate against reduced benefits outside Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)

A medical employees union in Kodiak has been working without a signed contract for nearly a year. Negotiations over earned sick leave and vacation time came to a stalemate in October, but talks are set to resume this week. Union members unanimously authorized a strike this weekend, but they’re hoping they won’t have to use that option.

Saturday more than 75 health care workers and community members stood outside Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center. They held signs protesting proposed changes to the workers’ paid time off.

“Our basic hope for the negotiation is that we can just maintain our current benefit,” said Genevieve Cook, a physical therapist and Alaska Medical Employees Association organizer.

Taking a break from pouring hot chocolate for demonstrators, she explained that the proposed changes would mean about 10 working days, or two weeks less paid leave. Instead of 27 vacation days — including federal holidays — and eight sick days, management is pushing for 25 paid leave days total, to be split across vacation, holidays and sick leave.

Providence St. Joseph Health, the corporation that manages Kodiak’s medical center, operates 51 hospitals across the country, several of which are also going through similar labor disputes. The new benefit plan has been implemented in many of those facilities, including in Anchorage.

“I reached out to people in Anchorage to say, ‘You’re on the new plan, how’s it going?’,” Cook said. “And they said, you know, employees are coming to work sick, they don’t want to use their vacation days. They feel like they have fewer vacation days in general. I haven’t reached out to anybody that’s been happy about it.”

As a trade-off for reduced leave, hospital administration has proposed giving employees disability payments for short-term absences, but Cook says its a cumbersome process that doesn’t work well in practice.

“The short term disability plan wouldn’t kick in until after you’re sick for seven days. So that’s a real rare circumstance.”

The disability plan would also only cover 65 percent of wages, meaning the other 35 percent would still come out of paid time off.

Union members up and down the sidewalk outside the medical center voiced concerns about benefit cuts from reduced morale and diminishing quality of care to the difficulty of traveling off and on the island with reduced vacation time.

“Our time is very valuable here in Kodiak,” said a caregiver named Heather Crivello. “It takes a long time to get off the hit the island and to get back on and the weather is just so unpredictable … The employees, the caregivers really feel very strongly about keeping our benefits the same, not losing those hours.”

Physical therapist Alison Horn said, “It’s already hard to recruit people to come here, It’s already hard to like to retain people. And so when you just keep cutting, it makes it that much harder to get people to come and stay.”

Hospital CEO Gina Bishop released a statement saying administrators respect the rights of union employees to demonstrate and “our preference has always been to reach a mutually acceptable agreement constructively and in good faith.” Bishop wrote that they “remain committed to ensuring an exceptional workplace experience for our caregivers.”

Bishop was not available for further comment by broadcast time.

Since the Kodiak union’s contracts with Providence expired last February, union employees have been working off a series of temporary contract agreements. The last one expired in October, after negotiations came to a standstill. Since then, caregivers say they’ve been working under the same contract terms, only without a signed contract.

AMEA employees voted unanimously on Saturday to authorize a strike, but organizers like Alison Horn say they continue to hope for success at the negotiating table.

“I would love to see Providence come to the table with a little bit more like a willingness to negotiate with us. I just feel like every single time we’ve been at the table, it’s the same thing. We’ve tried many creative ways to say, ‘Okay, we would take that if we could come up with a way to kind of make up for this loss.’ But there’s nothing that has worked thus far.”

The union has reopened contract negotiations with Providence this week, after which they will decide how to proceed. Cook says they remain steadfast in their position that they do not want to strike. If they do choose to exercise that option, they’ll need to give the hospital a 10-day notice.