By the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and the Spokesman-Review

After nearly a year of contract negotiations and little movement, nurses and health care workers at seven Providence locations throughout Washington, including hospitals in Walla Walla and Spokane, began voting Thursday on whether to authorize a strike.

Walla Walla union members are set to vote today.

“We don’t want to strike,” St. Mary Medical Center nurse Leikin Patrick wrote in a Letter to the Editor published today in the U-B. “A strike affects us as much as it affects our community. We do not want to leave you, our community members, in this position, yet Providence refuses to negotiate with us.”

Together, Washington State Nurses Association and UFCW 21 members make up more than 3,000 employees at Spokane’s Sacred Heart Medical Center and many more with St. Mary and other hospitals in the state.

The two unions are primarily at odds with Providence officials over proposed changes to the benefits package for employees, as well as staffing levels at Sacred Heart, the largest hospital in Eastern Washington.

“Providence has taken a stand to reduce our paid time off by 60 or more hours per year and greatly reduce our earned sick time,” Patrick stated in her letter. “I personally stand to lose 72 hours of PTO (paid time off) this coming year if we accept this contract.”

In a phone conversation with the U-B this morning, Patrick said that if Providence presented a contract that is fair, she would reconsider voting to strike.

“They need to give something,” she said. “All they are trying to do is take away.”

Patrick says the negotiations have been going on eight months.

“I am fairly frustrated it has been taking this long … we have reached no where.”

Providence officials want to continue negotiations and released a statement about the strike votes on Thursday.

“We are aware that the unions are holding strike votes. While we are disappointed with this direction, we respect their right to do so,” the statement said. “We are still actively bargaining in good faith, and we’re hopeful that we can come to an agreement.”

Hospital workers and nurses at Sacred Heart Medical Center said work environments were tense and that the negotiations have been hard on morale.

Both WSNA and UFCW 21 filed charges against Sacred Heart Medical Center with the National Labor Relations Board this month.

UFCW 21 is alleging Sacred Heart engaged in coercive actions, coercive rules and interrogation, case descriptions filed with the NLRB show. WSNA is alleging Sacred Heart has used coercive statements.

Nurses at Sacred Heart have had 14 negotiating sessions over their contract, and three of the most recent sessions have been federally mediated. Nurses have another bargaining date set for Tuesday.

WSNA plans to release the final vote count today, after voting is complete.

If nurses authorize a strike, the ultimate decision lies with a WSNA Cabinet, which will decide if and when to initiate the strike, giving Providence a 10-day notice to staff the hospital in preparation.

Austen Louden, another UFCW bargaining unit member, said the vote to approve a strike must be two-thirds in favor. He said the team worked hard to make contact with each of the 1,280 members ahead of the vote.

Tentative negotiation dates are set for UFCW 21-represented workers at Sacred Heart in November, but the union will not release specific vote count information until all of its Providence-based units statewide have voted.

Support and maintenance workers at Providence Holy Family Hospital, also represented by UFCW 21, will vote on strike authorization today.

Each UFCW 21 unit at a Providence facility will cast strike votes in the next week, so final vote counts will not be available from UFCW 21 until Thursday or later.

WSNA-represented nurses at Kadlec Medical Center, a Providence-affiliated system in the Tri-Cities, have negotiations set for Friday and strike votes scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.

If UFCW 21 members authorize a strike, the bargaining teams can decide if and when to make the final decision about whether to do so. If they implement a strike, they would send a 10-day notice to Providence.