Dozens of MultiCare employees, representing about 1,800 whose contracts are under negotiation, held an informational picket Thursday afternoon in front of Tacoma General Hospital.
The employees are represented by UFCW 21, under about eight contracts, and hold jobs that include technicians, office staff, housekeepers and maintenance personnel across several MultiCare Health System facilities. The union and MultiCare, Pierce County’s largest private employer, have been in negotiations since September. A federal mediator got involved at the beginning of March at the request of both parties.
The sides are bargaining over several issues, including wages, raises and how to handle the potential outsourcing of jobs. But the biggest one, according to members of the union’s bargaining team, is the health system’s demand to change the type of retirement plan.
MultiCare has switched from a defined benefit plan, which is a pension based on earnings and length of service, to a defined contribution plan that relies more heavily on investment income. Generally, a defined benefit plan allows an employee to know exactly what their future benefits will be, where a defined contribution plan’s benefits can fluctuate.
Some 540 members of UFCW 21 are the last MultiCare employees with a defined benefit plan who haven’t agreed to transition out by the end of the year, spokeswoman Marce Edwards said.
Kris Pair, a pharmacy technician, worked 18 years at Tacoma General and the past 16 at Allenmore. She’s most concerned about the potential changes to retirement benefits. At age 62, she is in the last of her earning years and is doing her best to save enough to retire. She’s been counting on the defined benefit plan.
“They should honor that,” she said. “That’s what they agreed to, and what I’ve planned for.”
Other employees interviewed Thursday said they’re concerned about what they see as MultiCare’s increasing drive for profits. In 2013 the system had revenues of $1.9 billion, expenses of $1.7 billion, leaving an operating margin, or profit, of about $222 million, an increase of about $15 million from 2012.
Erin McCoy, a barista at Tacoma General for 16 years and a member of the bargaining team, said MultiCare’s negotiators have said their goal is to protect the health system’s profit margin. McCoy said the need for more staff members, from nurses to cafeteria workers, is visible throughout the hospital.
“I hear frustration all the time from nurses who don’t have enough time for patients, or who are working double shifts or overtime,” she said.
Edwards said MultiCare wants to “make sure that all of our units and departments are appropriately staffed” but that it has a goal of reducing costs so care is more affordable. Sometimes positions must be eliminated, she said.
Jeri Munford is a housekeeper at Tacoma General. She’s done the same job for 15 years, though three years ago her job title was eliminated and she was hired back with a different job title at a lower rate of pay and seniority.
“I’m still trying to catch up,” she said.
MultiCare’s wages already are competitive, Edwards said, and the health system is offering wage increases that total an approximate 10 percent increase over three years for the average employee.
The next negotiation is set for April 24, UFCW 21 officials said.