Ketchikan nurses were picketing over the weekend as contract negotiations with PeaceHealth enter mediation this week. Both sides are working hard to keep things civil, but this is the first time local nurse contract negotiations have required a mediator’s assistance.
It’s a little after 8 on a frosty morning at the busy corner of Tongass Avenue and Jefferson Street. About a dozen people are waving signs at commuters, asking for honks in support of the Ketchikan Nurses Association.
Ann Fama is one of the demonstrators, sipping a cup of hot coffee as she waves her sign. She’s a longtime Ketchikan PeaceHealth Medical Center nurse, and is on the negotiating team for the union.
Fama said the union’s goal is to make sure wages are adequate for attracting and keeping nurses.
“We want the care given to this community to be the same standard as anywhere else in this country,” she said. “To do that, we have to have a comparable wage.”
Fama said the two sides have been able to agree about other issues – such as better working environments and ways to improve training for new nurses coming into the hospital through a cooperative program with the Ketchikan’s University of Alaska Southeast campus.
“But the area we’re really concerned is how do we retain these nurses once we have them trained, because many of them are leaving after one or two years of experience because now they can go out and get a job and make $3 or $4 more an hour,” she said.
The nurses’ union said that the wages in Ketchikan are lower than those paid to other nurses who work at PeaceHealth hospitals in the Lower 48, even though the cost of living here is higher.
While Ketchikan’s hospital building is owned by the city, it has always been operated by PeaceHealth, a Catholic health care system that runs 10 hospitals in the Pacific Northwest.
Fama said that the union isn’t asking for an across-the-board wage increase. They want the newer nurses to be paid more, in hopes of keeping them here.
“We’re able to hire new grads, we’re able to keep the people who are really entrenched here in the community after 15-20 years, but we really want to keep the young, energetic, smart group of nurses who can really make our team strong and grow,” she said.
“Today is round 5 of negotiations, said Mischa Chernick, marketing and communications manager for PeaceHealth Ketchikan.
She said PeaceHealth won’t comment on specific points of contract negotiations.
“We’re going to continue to have those conversations at the negotiations table,” Chernick said. “We will bargain in good faith to reach an outcome that’s mutually satisfactory for both our nurses and the PeaceHealth process.”
Chernick confirmed that the newest round of talks will be mediated, and added that, as with all their negotiations, a mediator has been observing the whole time.
“They are not necessarily at the table unless asked to join the table,” she said. “Both PeaceHealth and the association of Alaska nurses decided to ask for that involvement.”
The Ketchikan Nurses Association is a local chapter of the Alaska Nurses Association.
Chernick said that while the Ketchikan nurses have never before needed a mediator to help with negotiations, it’s not an unusual step.
“We anticipate that it will help clarify perspectives and issues, and bring those negotiations to a satisfactory conclusion,” she said.
Chernick and Fama say both sides are trying hard to keep negotiations positive, because a good resolution will be good for the whole community.
The current nurses’ contract expired on Nov. 30, but both sides agreed to extend it by a couple of months. That extension ends Friday.