Nurses for MultiCare’s Tacoma General Hospital staged a rally at a Tacoma overpass Wednesday morning before a session with federal labor mediators.
Around 200 nurses and their supporters attended the rally on the Yakima Avenue overpass in subfreezing temperatures Wednesday morning.
Around 730 registered nurses who work at the hospital have been without a union contract for a year. Wednesday’s mediation session is the most recent of several this year, said Christine Himmelsbach, director of labor for the Washington State Nurses Association.
Himmelsbach said she’s hopeful MultiCare and the nurses who work at Tacoma General will reach a contract agreement and a settlement of a slate of workplace issues. The nurses’ chief concern is how the hospital asks nurses to take federally required breaks.
The so-called “break buddy” system allows a nurse to take two 15-minute breaks per shift while another nurse watches over both of their patients. But Himmelsbach said nurses worry for patient safety if they take breaks in this way, and many avoid taking breaks at all.
In a statement, MultiCare spokeswoman Marce Edwards said hospital patients are safe with the current system. Contract negotiations include “discussing the long-used ‘break buddy’ system. This is the most common approach to providing nursing breaks in hospitals across the country and is consistent with state and federal laws.”
Another Tacoma hospital system, CHI Franciscan Health, agreed to hire nurses to cover breaks at St. Joseph Medical Center in a settlement announced last week. Franciscan settled for $5 million earlier this month over breaks for its nurses at its flagship hospital, just down the street from Tacoma General.
Himmelsbach called the Franciscan agreement a “breakthrough,” saying it’s a “wake-up call to other hospitals in the area that have not reached that point.”
Nurses have said MultiCare should hire more nurses who can cover for those who are taking breaks, but executives said hiring more nurses to cover breaks would cost $13 million.
Last month, MultiCare spent $425 million to acquire two Spokane-area hospitals and dozens of clinics.
Wednesday’s mediation could last into the wee hours of the night, Himmelsbach said. If mediation fails, MultiCare’s nurses union could vote Friday to authorize a strike. The result of that vote might not be released until late in the evening Friday.
If they do approve a strike, the nurses will give the hospital the required 10 days’ notice to plan for patient care, which would mean the strike would happen after Christmas.
Another federal mediation session is scheduled for Jan. 4, Himmelsbach said.