The Montana Nurses Association is currently in negotiations with St. Peter’s Hospital in Helena, and the nurses said they are not making much progress.
After a mediation meeting with both sides Tuesday, Paul Lee, MNA Helena chapter president, said administrators from St. Peter’s Hospital walked away from the table, leaving negotiations still open.
“We had come to bargain with a mediator and ended up where St. Peter’s wasn’t ready to talk about economic issues, and they only wanted to talk about non-economic issues,” Lee explained.
Saint Peter’s Hospital currently employs 307 nurses. The latest contract, which Lee said was, “Not a great contract for nurses over the last three years,” expired on May 31, 2017 and both sides have agreed to honor the terms and conditions laid out until a new agreement is made.
Labor representative for the MNA Sandi Luckey said a nurses bargaining team began discussions in November ahead of the expiration and then started working with the hospital in March. The three year contract currently in negotiation is asking for an 8 percent increase in base wages the first year, a 7 percent increase the second year and a six percent increase the final year.
“Negotiations started out okay, but it has become more difficult, when it comes to nurse safety issues and nurse wages,” said Lee.
One of the concerns the nurses have is about wages, and increasing the base rate to reach a market average in comparison to other large facilities in the state; including hospitals like St. James in Butte, St. Patrick and Community Medical Center in Missoula, Billings Clinic, Bozeman Health and the Community Hospital in Anaconda.
According to contracts available on the MNA website, nurses at St. Peter’s Hospital are the paid the lowest base rate in the state by 26 cents. The second lowest is Bozeman Health, but Luckey said that contract will expire May 1, 2018 and those rates are expected to increase.
Another concern the nurses raised relates to patient care slipping due to a shrinking staff, which Oncology Department nurse Michelle Smith said is directly related to the low wages.
“I want to bring safer patient care to the hospital, I want to bring safe staffing ratios and in order to get that, we need to attract good nurses, new nurses with quality education, we need to be able to retain those nurses and we need to be able to retain the experienced nurses that we have at the hospital,” explained Smith. “To do that, we need to have competitive wages.”
Part of the package the MNA is trying to negotiate includes unit counsels, which would allow the nurses to have a voice at the table during management decisions.
“What better way to bring about safe, quality patient care than to involve those nurses who take care of those patients every day,” Smith said.
Putting value in the nurses and giving them a voice is crucial for Smith, who believes things need to change and that starts with this contract: “The way things are going at the hospital is status quo, and you can’t bring about change in a period of status quo.”
Smith has worked at St. Peter’s Hospital for two years and Lee has been a nurse in the intensive care unit for 28 years. Both echo the same sentiment about the future at the hospital.
“We touch our neighbors, we touch our community and we’re concerned about what’s happening for St. Peter’s,” Lee said.
Saint Peter’s Hospital issued the following statement to MTN News on Wednesday, addressing the contract negotiation concerns:
“Our intent is to honor the confidentiality of the collective bargaining process, and not to engage in public contract negotiations. As the largest private employer in Helena, we are committed to providing our employees with fair market value compensation. Every year, we use data from the Montana Hospital Association to conduct a full market analysis of all positions at St. Peter’s and ensure we are compensating our employees at fair market value. We are equally committed to competitive compensation for the nurses who are represented by the union, and we’re confident what we have proposed is a reflection of this good faith. We hope to reach an agreement in the coming weeks that is both feasible for the organization and supported by our nurses.”
Luckey said the numbers St. Peter’s Hospital is using from the Montana Hospital Association could be outdated, resulting in the difference in averages the two sides show.
She said the Billings Clinic recently ratified a new contract and the MHA could be using the old data. Also, Luckey said St. Peter’s Hospital is using wage data from the Northern Rockies Medical Center in Cut Bank, which is not a comparable facility since ten nurses are employed.
The next mediation session is scheduled for July 26 and the MNA remains optimistic an agreement can be reached.
“We came with a hope that we could get something better for nurses, patient care and patient safety,” he said. “We’re still very hopeful of that.”