By Cameron Rasmusson
Bonner General Health is undergoing negotiations with its nursing staff following a union vote to authorize a strike.
The vote, which took place throughout the day last Thursday, does not necessarily mean the nurses will go on strike. Instead, it authorizes the workers’ committee to enact a strike if it is deemed necessary and allows the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to authorize strike benefits should one occur.
“Although the Nurses are not officially on strike, their recent vote to authorize this form of employment action is disheartening,” hospital officials wrote in a press release. “The Hospital believes that both parties and the community would be better served by continuing the efforts to resolve the issues that remain open.”
According to a letter urging union members in good standing to cast a ballot, votes occurred in two separate blocks between 5 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-9 p.m. last Thursday at the Sandpoint Quality Inn, with a ballot count taking place at 9 p.m.
“As always, our goal is to negotiate a recommended settlement that is acceptable to the nurses,” the letter read.
According to the press release, the hospital is offering the nursing staff a “substantial increase” to the pay scale. The increase puts local nurses in line with typical wages at similarly sized hospitals throughout the rest of the state, and BGH has been informed the raises are acceptable to the union.
Negotiations are also touching on staffing hours, asking nurses in the maternity and emergency departments to accept an on-call schedule. A system already in place in the surgical and home health care and hospice departments, the on-call schedule helps guarantee that nurses with the proper specializations will be available to cover unplanned absences or increased patient levels.
The occasional nurse position is up for negotiation as well, with the hospital seeking to remove a 16-hour notification requirement before the staffers start work. If the hospital does not notify them within the time requirements, they are paid a 13-percent premium and a time-and-a-half rate. According to BGH officials, the occasional nurses are by design intended to fill staffing vacancies, which sometimes crop up unexpectedly. They argue that the 16-hour notification requirement should be removed to better reflect the nature of the position.
As negotiations unfold, BGH officials are pushing back against rumors that the hospital is understaffed or operating on subpar conditions. They say that the same standards for care and staffing are in place, and regardless of the negotiations’ outcome, they intend to maintain a business-as-usual policy.
“Unfortunately, the Nurses’ voting action has been shared with the Community and possibly raised concerns that patient services may not be available or diminished in some way,” officials said in a press release. “The Hospital’s Board of Directors and Administration want to assure everyone that, no matter what may happen as a result of the current debate, the Hospital will remain open and professionally staffed in a manner which will continue to provide all of the services the community has come to rely on.”
The Teamsters Local Union No. 690, which is representing the BGH nurses in unfolding negotiations, declined to comment on this story.