News & Features

Montana Nurses Association Alleges KRH Restructuring Violates Federal Law

Organization files charge with National Labor Relations Board; KRH response says claims include "blatantly false" and "irresponsible" statements

The Montana Nurses Association (MNA) has filed an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Kalispell Regional Healthcare has violated federal law with its recently announced “leadership redesign,” which includes laying off more than 100 charge nurses, according to the MNA.

Vicky Byrd, executive director of the MNA, said her organization has been in “constant communication and actively organizing with many KRH nurses interested in forming a nurses union” over the last 12 months. Nurses previously told the Beacon they have also been in ongoing unionization discussions with the Teamsters.

The MNA asserts that the employee restructuring and layoffs are intended to undermine unionization efforts, and will negatively impact patient care.

“When there’s an illegal unilateral change in working conditions, it results in a violation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) for the purpose of interfering with employee rights to form a nurses union,” Byrd said. “It appears KRH is trying to sound a warning shot to nurses that they’ll be laid off and not be rehired if they support becoming union.”

“It’s a disappointing move affecting quality care in the community,” she added. “Running a hospital without charge nurses is highly unusual and goes against the grain of those positions providing good high-quality patient care.”

KRH said Thursday afternoon that it has “not received official notification of this action” and “cannot comment on charges that we have neither seen nor reviewed.” But KRH did respond to the press release issued by the MNA, which the hospital says “included blatantly false information that we feel must be clarified.”

The point-by-point statement reads:

“Contrary to the MNA’s assertion, KRH has not “la[id] off more than 100 charge nurses.” Rather, KRH is in the process of redesigning its leadership structure.

Currently, there are more than 100 open positions at KRH for registered nurses, (including bedside nurses, supervisors and directors) posted. Charge Nurses affected by the recent leadership redesign will have the opportunity to be selected for one of these open positions.

Contrary to the MNA’s assertion, KRH has not taken any action “for the purpose of interfering with employee rights to form a nurses union.” KRH respects the rights of our employees to either support or oppose representation by an outside labor union.

The MNA’s press release suggests that KRH’s leadership redesign will harm patient care. This assertion is false and irresponsible. In fact, KRH’s leadership redesign is designed to improve patient care and provide more direct support to staff in all shifts.

At Kalispell Regional Healthcare, we value the contributions that our nurses and employees make in supporting the delivery of high quality patient care. We are disappointed that the MNA, which claims to advocate for nurses, would provide false and divisive information to the public and our employees.”

KRH administrators sent an email to employees on Nov. 30 announcing a “leadership redesign” that would affect approximately 130 employees to “adapt to the pressures of a rapidly changing healthcare environment” and “support financial stewardship.” The new structure takes effect Jan. 1, while staff in affected leadership positions will continue to work in their current roles through the end of the year.

“This leadership redesign will consist of changes in leadership structure, modified titles, roles and/or responsibilities of approximately 130 KRH leaders,” the email stated. “We anticipate that there will be minimal involuntary departures across the organization as most leaders will have opportunities for new positions within the new structure.”

“This redesign is not meant to diminish the work currently being performed by our leaders,” the email continued. “Our goal is to better align roles with the needs of the organization while retaining as many employees as possible through different roles and opportunities within KRH. The redesigned structure will provide role clarity and accountability, support financial stewardship, improve organizational efficiency, increase leadership visibility and help our organization adapt to a changing environment. We are taking a proactive approach by aligning our organizational resources to focus on our mission.”

The restructuring has broad implications for Charge Registered Nurses, or charge nurses, as those positions will now be eliminated. In their place, under the new leadership model, charge nurses can apply for 48 Shift Unit Supervisor positions, according to a Nov. 29 memo from KRH Chief Nursing Executive Teresa Fisher.

Charge nurses are often the most experienced and senior nurses in a unit, and oversee assignments in their unit while providing patient care.

“Why all of a sudden are they laying off these very valuable nurses?” Byrd said Thursday morning. “It’s very disappointing they would remove those high-quality, senior, more experienced care providers out of their hospital.”

In addition to affecting patient care, the MNA says eliminating charge nurses significantly impacts unionization efforts, because charge nurses are allowed to unionize under federal law but a supervisor can’t be a member of a bargaining unit.

“Charge nurses don’t fall under supervisory rules under the National Labor Relations Act,” said Robin Haux, labor program director with the MNA, adding that a series of criteria tests determine supervisory status, including hiring and firing power, disciplinary authority and more.

“From our understanding,” she continued, “these (new shift unit supervisors) are management-level positions” that are governed by the law’s supervisory rules.

On Thursday afternoon, the Montana Federation of Public Employees (MFPE), the state’s largest union with 25,000 members, released a statement announcing its support of the MNA’s action in opposition to “the retaliatory tactics being used by Kalispell Regional Healthcare.”

The MFPE said KRH’s “short-sighted decision will further stretch an already stretched healthcare system.” It also stated that a “simple Google search reveals that Kalispell Regional Healthcare has been attempting to fill numerous nursing positions for months.”

“The healthcare provider’s anti-union tactics are not only cruel, they’re dangerous and put patients at risk,” the MFPE statement said.

Eric Feaver, president of MFPE, called nurses “the backbone of any hospital.”

“It’s shameful that Kalispell Regional Healthcare is putting profits and union animus ahead of quality people care,” Feaver said. “Every employee deserves a voice in the workplace, especially when that work includes caring for and saving lives. Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s anti-union action is shameful.”

Byrd said the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will now investigate the complaint. If the charge is found to have no merit, it will be withdrawn. If it proceeds, the NLRB will provide direction on the next steps, according to Byrd.

“Nurses are the heart of the health care system,” Byrd said. “There is ample evidence that when the voices of staff nurses are included in decision-making, the quality of patient care improves. That’s what these nurses want, to be heard and respected, and allowed the opportunity to help improve the hospital by having a collective union voice in patient care, staffing and nurse recruitment and retention.”

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