Nurses at Kalispell Regional Healthcare are organizing an effort to unionize, citing an array of grievances related to unfair wages, loss of benefits, unsafe work conditions, low morale and suboptimal patient environments.
While some grievances have been simmering for years, the movement to unionize was spurred by news earlier this year of a lawsuit filed by the hospital’s physician network’s chief financial officer and a federal investigation into KRH for an allegedly illegal scheme of improper payments to certain physicians, and the hospital’s efforts to trim costs as it faces a pending $21.5 million settlement, according to interviews with nurses.
Nurses say they and other non-physician employees at the hospital have unfairly felt the brunt of cost-cutting efforts stemming from a settlement and allegations that have nothing to do with them. A half-dozen nurses spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
As one example, they said their pay-raise ceiling was recently lowered, at a time when KRH nurses’ wages were already among the lowest in the state, according to their research. They add that raises are infrequently given, and that wages don’t adhere to a consistent or transparent scale, nor are they adequately increased when nurses secure certifications, as is expected.
Saying they feel dispensable and undervalued, organizing nurses have contacted both the Teamsters and the Montana Nurses Association about unionizing.
“We want to get our voices out there,” a nurse said. “We’re tired of having no voice.”
“Nurses are the ones taking care of people for 12 hours at a time, with barely any breaks, the ones trying to make do without extra staff,” the nurse continued. “I feel our community isn’t aware of what’s going on. And I don’t feel like they’re aware that (the hospital is) cutting nursing staff benefits.”
KRH representatives were not available for comment before the Beacon went to print on Aug. 27.
Nurses need 30 percent of the nursing staff to express interest in moving forward with a union application and are currently gathering signatures. Organizing nurses feel confident in reaching the threshold based on the response so far, which one called “overwhelming,” with signature cards overnighted to meet demand.
“It’s exploding,” one nurse said.
If enough signatures are secured, the next step would be to submit the application to the National Labor Relations Board. If the board green-lights the application and advances it through requisite protocol, an election will be held, with nurses needing over 50 percent of the vote to unionize and begin negotiations.
Other grievances among the nurses include poor health insurance, lack of a process to air grievances with representation, and staff distributions that leave individual nurses isolated and stretched thin, potentially jeopardizing patients’ safety.
“That’s not fair to the nurse, it’s not fair to the patients, and it’s not fair to our community,” a nurse said.
Also, nurses said hospital daycare benefits were recently reduced, which one nurse said sends the message that executives and physicians named in the lawsuit “can still have their millions, but we’re going to take (money) from you and we’re going to cut your kid care.”
“(Employees) have not been allowed to have a voice because (KRH) owns everything,” a nurse said. “A lot of people are fearful.”
One nurse who spent more than three decades at a large out-of-state hospital said she is accustomed to a transparent wage scale that increases with time.
“Here, they don’t do that,” she said. “The wages are horrible. And they don’t stand behind their employees at all. You don’t feel like you have any support.”
Organizers say nurses from the HealthCenter, North Valley Hospital and clinics have expressed interest in unionizing, in addition to those at Kalispell Regional Medical Center. Moreover, they say the hope is to improve work conditions beyond nurses, extending to certified nursing assistants, techs and other employees in the hospital system.
“There are a bunch of very unhappy employees right now,” a nurse said. “Every single person here has a story about being treated unfairly, about not having representation.”