Kalispell Regional Healthcare CEO Expresses Concerns Over Nurse Unionization

Union election scheduled for July 11-12; nurses say management decisions have affected patient care

By Myers Reece
Kalispell Regional Healthcare. Beacon File Photo

Kalispell Regional Healthcare President and CEO Craig Lambrecht acknowledges that communication and trust have been issues between leadership and employees in the past, but he doesn’t believe a collective bargaining unit among nurses is the best way to improve back-and-forth dialogue or address concerns.

Lambrecht made those remarks in a recent interview, more than a week after organizing nurses hand-delivered him a letter announcing they had filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to form a union.

“I don’t think a union is the way to create more engagement, more intimacy, and allow this organization to move forward in a way that is really a solution to the problems the nurses have identified,” Lambrecht said, adding that he worries how a union will impact KRH’s ability to remain independent moving forward.

Nurses from Kalispell Regional Medical Center, The HealthCenter, Brendan House and Kalispell Regional Healthcare clinics filed their petition on June 13 to form a union with SEIU Healthcare 1199NW. The bargaining unit would encompass roughly 650 nurses from across the KRH health care system, excluding North Valley Hospital.

The union election is scheduled for July 11 and 12. It will take place on July 11 at KRMC’s Mariposa Conference Room from 5:30 to 8:30 a.m., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. The following day it will be held at Eureka Health in Eureka from 8 to 8:30 a.m., at Home Options in Libby from 12 to 1 p.m. and back at KRMC again from 4 to 5:30 p.m. A representative from the NLRB will oversee and monitor the secret ballot election.

Organizing nurses say the union petition was signed by an “overwhelming majority of nurses, who say forming a union is [a] necessary step in ensuring quality care and good jobs for all hospital workers.”

In addition to concerns over staffing levels and quality of patient care and safety, nurses have also cited unfair wages, lack of wage transparency, loss of benefits, low morale and inability to voice concerns as grievances in their unionization push.

“There’s so much that goes into this,” Cindy Hinzman, one of the organizing nurses, said in a recent interview. “It’s about having a seat at the table with management to say, ‘These are some of our issues. How can we work on getting processes changed, or retaining some staff, or just have some transparency?’”

Hinzman said Lambrecht has held meetings with employees and discussed his worries over a union’s potential impact on operations and open dialogue, but she said hospital leadership has had ample opportunities to improve communication, address nurses’ concerns and gain trust.

“He keeps saying we have all of these intimate conversations, and we’re going to lose our intimacy, but we have all these conversations and there’s never been any action taken,” Hinzman said.

SEIU has distributed printouts with nurse testimonials describing the reasons they intend to vote yes, with multiple nurses citing lagging retention and the loss of colleagues in recent months. The testimonials come from an array of units and clinics, including The Rock, ICU, A.L.E.R.T., The HealthCenter, Brendan House and more.

Meanwhile, KRH is launching a website leading up to the election that features a video statement from Lambrecht, election details, a page to submit questions and a description of the hospital’s position that begins, “Simply put, we don’t think SEIU representation of any of our employees is right for our system.”

Citing an area in which communication was lacking, Lambrecht pointed to a staffing model shakeup last fall that he believes could have been handled better. That restructuring reduced nurse-to-patient ratios in some areas and eliminated charge nurse positions. Those charge nurses either reapplied for different positions or accepted severance packages. The restructuring occurred under previous CEO Pam Robertson before Lambrecht took over.

Lambrecht said the staffing model changes were in response to modern health care realities, in which the hospital has to “find efficiencies, and one of those areas is staffing models and measuring productivity.”

“I think we could have done a better job of communicating during that rollout,” he said. “When you roll out changes like that, there needs to be a dialogue and engagement with nurses so people don’t feel like they’re being blindsided and they understand the reason why and what it means for the future.”

Karen Rupp, a registered nurse in the NICU, said the changes to staffing levels “might be good for the bottom line but make it hard to care for our patients.”

“We’re forming our union to have a seat at the table when proposals are made that could impact patients and our community,” Rupp said.

John Fitch, an Emergency Department registered nurse, said management needs to take measures “to improve patient care and the conditions at our workplace.”

“Nurses on the ground level and at the bedside want a say in making sure our patients have positive experiences and outcomes,” Fitch said. “We’re asking management to come to the table, hear our concerns and work with us to make this a safer place for our patients. Above all, we’re asking for management to put patients first.”

Lambrecht said “by no means can there ever be a feeling that the quality and safety of patient care is jeopardized,” but he emphasized that “it’s not.” He also discussed the financial and operational impacts of collective bargaining.

“It’s a process and an investment,” he said. “It will involve additional expertise that we don’t have in house now. And it will very much change the day-to-day business and environment we have for patients.”

Days after the union petition was filed, the hospital announced that Chief Nursing Executive Teresa Fisher would be leaving the position to focus entirely on her role as executive leader of the new Montana Children’s Medical Center. Lambrecht said the timing was coincidental and that he had been planning the transition for a while.

Lambrecht said providers who have previously worked in union environments told him they would prefer not to work in one again, although Hinzman said she knows of physicians who are feeling strained from a shortage of nurses. She also said new nurses have been thrust into difficult situations without completing their orientation.

Jason Spring, KRH’s chief strategic officer, said while administrators understand that organizing activities will gain attention leading up to the election, the hospital is operating as usual.

“We still have a full-time job of taking care of patients and delivering care here, and that’s what our focus is going to be,” Spring said. “We take care of patients. We take care of our community. That’s what we do every day.”

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