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St. James Healthcare

St. James Healthcare in Butte.

Unionized employees of St. James Healthcare say they are disappointed after being asked to bargain over contractual benefits in order to receive a system-wide monetary award being offered by SCL Health Associates, the faith-based nonprofit healthcare organization that operates Butte's hospital.

Robin Haux, labor program director for the Montana Nurses Association, which collectively bargains on behalf of all non-supervisory registered nurses at St. James, says her membership felt "confusion and hurt" over being asked to "trade earned benefits for an award."

"You and I both know that's not an award," Haux says.

The discord started May 21, when Lydia Jumonville, the president and CEO of SCL Health Associates, sent a letter to employees informing them that "active, non-manager associates" would receive "a special, one-time bonus award" of between $75 and $500 in "recognition of your contribution to our shared work to achieve such strong overall performance in 2017."

But an asterisk led readers to a footnote that said associates "covered by a collective bargaining agreement" would receive "relevant information from their care site leadership."

According to Haux, the relevant information shared by leadership at St. James was that unionized employees would only receive a bonus if they agreed to bargain over their existing benefits, including reducing the rate at which they accrue paid time off, capping the number of paid-time-off hours they can bank, and cutting their number of paid holidays.

Currently, according to Haux, unionized hospital employees receive better paid time off and holiday benefits than non-union employees. And Haux believes the effort to get unionized workers to bargain over these benefits was part of an effort to make benefits the same for all workers across the board.

"I believe they (SCL administrators) have an interest in standardizing everything to everywhere else," Haux says. "And that interest is different than our interest."

In an emailed statement, Trisha Palmer, senior director of human resources and support services for St. James Healthcare, said, "All of our associates are valued members of the St. James Healthcare team, and we have good relationships and processes in place with our union partners. St. James is committed to following federal laws that outline the process we must follow when discussing compensation for union-represented associates. We have been in contact with the unions regarding their current questions and will continue our commitment to open communication and positive partnership."

While nurses at St. James are represented by the Montana Nurses Association, the Teamsters represent other unionized employees at the hospital, including kitchen staff, housekeeping staff, and various medical technicians.

Erin Foley, business agent for Butte's Teamsters Local 2, saw things similarly to Haux.

"Essentially, they want something in return for giving the bonuses out," Foley says. "And our stance right now is that we are not going to bargain over the bonus and open the contract, leaving us liable to lose other benefits in the contract."

Foley says her members' "biggest concern" was that "the way the memo was written really divides union and non-union employees and hurts morale."

But she says a more long-term worry for unionized employees is what it might herald for future contract negotiations.

That's a concern, she says, "because we do know that they're already posturing or posing that they're having these (budget) shortfall issues, that if things don't turn around, then negotiations could be more along the lines that they don't have anything to give."

The hospital's Teamsters employees are split into two units, according to Foley. One unit's contract will expire on June 30, 2019, and the other unit's contract ends a year later.

Haux says the registered nurses' contract also ends June 30, 2019. Asked whether the spat over the bonus would affect negotiations over a new contract, Haux says she's "sure" the nurse bargaining team "will remember it."

"I think they're a little hurt and a little disappointed by it," Haux says.

Despite her concerns, Foley says she doesn't "want it to come off that the Teamsters are fighting with St. James, but we have had discussion about how this was handled."

The Montana Nurses Association echoed this sentiment.

According to Robin Foley, a registered nurse who has spent 36 years at St. James and who has previously worked with local nurses labor management committees, "We're trying to take the high road on this and say congratulations to the members of our team that do get the bonus. And we just want to stress that we're proud of what everyone accomplished, and we're going to continue to provide the best care that we can and stay together as a team, in spite of this little hiccup in the road."

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