Providence slashes tech unit workers’ sick leave benefit
Providence Health System, one of the country’s richest hospital chains, has eliminated sick leave for workers in its nine tech units at St. Peter Hospital. To protect this and other benefits, the technicians have unionized and are represented by UFCW 21.
They have been in negotiations for a first contract for several months. In addition to sick leave, issues on the bargaining table include PTO, retirement plans, health insurance, seniority, lay-offs and leaves of absence. A recent proposal from Providence included a pay scale that the techs say is inequitable as it fails to reflect their job requirements.
To raise awareness of their struggle for fair compensation, workers from the tech units gathered at the intersection of Martin Way and Lilly Road on January 29. Representatives from UFCW Local 21 and members of Olympia Democratic Socialists of America joined them.
“Why is it that other employees of Providence get to have annual leave and sick leave? Are we not as important as the dietary staff, transporters, and housekeepers?” wondered one technician via email interview. “Providence knows exactly why we decided to unionize,” said another. “I’m sure they’re asking themselves why we waited so long.”
Whittling away compensation for those who do the work
After receiving more than $2.5 billion in government COVID stimulus funding, Providence is moving to reduce compensation for the technicians by eliminating “extended illness banks” (EIB). These allowed individuals to accrue up to 64 hours of sick leave per year to use themselves or for family members. As of January 1, no more hours can be accrued.
The move affects 194 technicians from the hospital’s cath and echo labs, ultrasound, interventional radiology, CT, MRI, diagnostic imaging (x-ray), pharmacy, and respiratory therapy units. Working in a hospital puts these technicians on the frontline of the pandemic. Many, such as respiratory therapy techs, are at particularly high risk as they work directly with COVID patients.
To top it off, many technicians have discovered they’re being paid as much as $10 per hour less than fair market value. The elimination of their sick leave, along with cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) unequal to those of their unionized colleagues, drove them to join the union. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, at least $1.2 million of the stimulus funding that flowed into Providence’s coffers has been allocated to St. Peter Hospital.
Increasing disparities across skilled workers
“Since we began bargaining, Providence has become very transparent with what their motives and intentions were and are,” said a worker via email who asked to remain anonymous. “If you weren’t already under a contract, Providence could take, would take, and will continue to take away from you, in the form of inconsistent COLAs, [arbitrary] merit pay raises, sick leave and other paid times off.”
The hurt and sense of betrayal is palpable. “We want to be treated the same as our RN co-workers who we work beside day in and day out,” said a technician who also wished to remain anonymous. “It is grossly unjust how unfair Providence has been to us,” said another.
Growing cash and compensation for those who control the work
A May 2020 New York Times article describes Providence as a “multibillion-dollar institution in the Seattle area [that] invests in hedge funds, runs a pair of venture capital funds and works with elite private equity firms like the Carlyle Group.”
According to the article, Providence was sitting on nearly $12 billion in cash at the time of writing, which it invests “Wall Street-style,” generating more than $1 billion in profits in a good year.
CEO Rod Hochman is one of the highest-paid men in the industry, with a total annual compensation of $11.5 million per year. In all, Providence’s 15 executive employees receive more than $37 million in compensation annually. As a nonprofit, the organization is exempt from paying state and federal taxes on its hospital business.
Years-long neglect of worker health and safety
MultiCare Health System is another “non profit” healthcare system that has been looking to maximize revenue by reducing compensation (for workers, not execs) and increasing workloads in ways certain to harm both workers and patients. MultiCare employs 20,000 people throughout Washington and is the largest tax-exempt healthcare organization in the state. With their recent purchase of Olympia’s Capital Medical Center, more of our community’s healthcare workers can expect to feel this squeeze.
Long hours, inadequate masks, too many patients
Last November, 120 MultiCare Indigo Urgent Care physicians, physician assistants, and advanced registered nurse practitioners in Pierce and Thurston Counties had had enough. They went on a two-day strike to demand safer working conditions. They had won recognition as part of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists (UAPD) in 2018 after a two-year fight, but MultiCare continues to prevent them from obtaining their first contract.
UAPD President Dr. Stuart Bussey explained why the Indigo Urgent Care practitioners went on strike: working 12-hour plus shifts and sometimes seeing more than 70 patients without a break. MultiCare also refused to allow use of N95 masks even if providers purchased their own. All of it means exhaustion for providers and unacceptable risks for patients.
Pursuing profit via “retail health”
Negotiators for the union felt they were close to getting some demands met, then MultiCare introduced new regressive language related to their “no closing” policy that requires doctors to see anyone who walks through the door before official closing time. With more people relying on urgent care during the pandemic, this forces people to work regular 15-hour shifts.
“No closing” is one element of a trend toward “retail health.” Another is replacing hospital employees with staffing companies. MultiCare announced on January 6 they are going to contract out the hospitalists and accompanying physician assistants at hospitals in Tacoma and Covington to Sound Physicians, a for-profit staffing firm. (Hospitalists are medical specialists certified in hospital medicine, overseeing inpatient care.) The workers will be terminated by MultiCare and have until April 5 to apply to Sound Physicians for their jobs.
UAPD Regional Administrator Joe Crane said in an interview with The News Tribune, “The physicians at all these hospitals are being told they are being let go and they have to apply for their jobs with an outside contractor for less pay and more work. It seems like a slap in the face during the crisis we are facing with COVID.”
MultiCare received at least $73 million in federal COVID stimulus grants so far. Compensation for CEO Bill Robertson was at $1.9 million in 2016, the most recent year there is data for. In January 2021 they helped Yakima’s Astria Health avoid bankruptcy with a $75-million loan.
Opposing improvements for frontline medical workers
A new bill in the Washington legislature, Health Emergency Labor Standards Act, SB 5115, would require employers to provide PPE and give lower-paid frontline employees emergency pay increases during a public health emergency. It would also require employers with 50 or more employees to provide childcare leave under that declaration. Employers would get a new B&O tax credit for wages paid due to the benefit.
Multicare CEO Robertson testified against the bill in his position as chair of the WA State Hospital Association, arguing that the bill’s emergency leave and childcare provisions would hurt workers because “the workforce is already depleted.” He protested that if hospitals were responsible when employees contracted COVID-19 at work, they might be subject to “abusive” lawsuits.
Patients and staff have been sickened by COVID outbreaks at a minimum of three MultiCare locations so far; it’s not surprising Robertson is trying to use the legislature to protect himself and other healthcare behemoths from frontline workers rising up in self-defense.
MultiCare’s senior vice president and chief quality, safety and nursing officer repeated Robertson’s complaint. She observed that nurses “are a scarce human resource and a critical element of hospital care,” so giving them the right to emergency leave would “just put pressure on remaining staff.”
If MultiCare provided adequate PPE and reasonable workdays, and didn’t try to off-load workers to “staffing firms’’ to build their bottom line, maybe they wouldn’t be so thin-staffed. It is apparent that caring for employees, and therefore patients, is not their priority. Evidence that it ever was is hard to find, with news stories covering their brutish treatment of employees reaching back to 2016.
Nonprofits containing for-profits
In an interview with Seattle Business Magazine, MultiCare’s Robertson reflected on the future of the hospital sector in the context of a joint venture of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase known as Haven. “There’s a lot of venture capital lining up to see how that capital can create returns for investors in interesting ways,” he said.
In that vein, Providence has announced a new private venture with about a dozen other healthcare systems across the country to sell patients’ data to pharmaceutical companies and researchers. They say the data will be “fully de-identified” and are working out how to inform patients of the scheme. They haven’t indicated that patients will be allowed to opt out.
How to extricate ourselves from this system
Choosing not to support Wal-Mart and Amazon is easy for those of us who live near a shopping center, but going elsewhere for health care is prohibitively time-consuming or dangerous, or both. In Olympia, and increasingly across the state, we are stuck with two profit-driven “nonprofits” who exploit workers and patients to enhance revenue and protect executives’ outsized compensation.
Perhaps this is another way a transition to Medicare for All could transform our medical industrial complex into a system that provides actual health care.
Eleanor Steinhagen is a communications specialist and 15-year resident of Olympia.
As of this writing, MultiCare workers are considering whether to go on strike again. For updates and info on supporting Providence workers, go to ufcw21.org. For updates and info on supporting MultiCare workers, go to uapd.com. Learn more by contacting Olympia DSA at firstname.lastname@example.org.