Nurses seeking a union contract with St. Joseph Regional Medical Center say the for-profit owner of the hospital has increased the number of patients they are required to care for in many departments.

In the progressive care unit, for example, four patients are now assigned to each nurse, compared with three before the Lewiston hospital was sold three years ago by Ascension Health, a Catholic not-for-profit organization, said Joe Thon, a registered nurse who is a bargaining committee member.

The unit is challenging because the patients are recovering from a variety of serious ailments such as heart attacks, strokes and sepsis, he said.

“It makes it very difficult to give quality care,” Thon said. “You don’t have the time to spend with your patients.”

That issue is among several that have surfaced since St. Joe’s was acquired by what is now LifePoint, a for-profit business, and is among the reasons nurses voted to join Teamsters Local 690 in Spokane last April, Thon said. Contract talks that followed for the 235 nurses represented by the union have yet to result in an agreement.

“The company doesn’t seem to be responding in negotiations,” said Larry Kroetch, business agent for Teamsters Local 690. “They have been consistent in almost every area asking for concessions.”

Little has been shared about the closed-door talks. St. Joe’s officials this week declined a request for an interview about the bargaining, instead issuing a prepared statement.

Hospital officials respect the rights of nurses to be represented by the Teamsters and, out of respect for the confidentiality of the process, believe it would be inappropriate to comment on the details of the discussions, according to the statement.

“We continue to negotiate in good faith and are working toward a fair and sustainable labor contract that meets the needs of our staff, our community and our hospital,” according to the statement.

But union members have broken the silence with full-page advertisements in the Lewiston Tribune and a recent interview.

Thon and Joe Shuey, another St. Joe’s nurse and member of the bargaining committee, spoke with the Tribune about their views of how the hospital has changed since it was sold and about the union.

They hope the contract contains language governing nurse-to-patient ratios that is based on guidelines of professional nursing organizations that represent the medical specialties practiced at the hospital.

Better working conditions, they contend, would help the hospital retain excellent nurses already on staff and recruit more.

When the hospital was a not-for-profit, almost the only way to get hired in the emergency department was if someone retired, Shuey said.

Since the hospital ceased to be a part of Ascension, it lost 22 nurses in the emergency department in a 20-month period of time, he said.

That problem is connected to compensation, they said.

“These folks have not seen an increase in their wages or benefits in at least three years,” Kroetch said. “We’re looking to gain something rather than maintain the nothing they have now.”

For Thon and Shuey, the role they’re playing in the union is an extension of a multi-year friendship.

The men are neighbors and sons of nurses who spent large parts of their careers at St. Joe’s.

Thon won the hospital’s nurse excellence award for 2019, and works in post-anesthesia care.

He was inspired to join the profession partly because of how his mother, a registered nurse, helped make sure his grandfather received good care while he was hospitalized at the end of his life.

Shuey, an emergency department nurse, did residential construction until he fell off the roof of a house in 2008 and had to spend more than two years recuperating from the injury.

It was unclear if he could return to his former job and he began studying to be a nurse during his recovery.

“I was really impressed with the level of compassion and caring (nurses provided),” he said. “I wanted to get into a position where I could do that for other people as well.”

The word “organize” first came out of Thon’s mouth when they were in his backyard talking about boating.

“We were very upset about where we saw our hospital going,” Shuey said. “We were racking our brains trying to figure out what to do about it.”

They weren’t the only ones with those feelings, Thon said.

“We had the tenacity to make the call,” he said. “A lot of people wanted to do something about it.”

Even though they have succeeded in helping form a union and are working on a contract, they believe they have more work to do.

Both sides have been meeting consistently for the last year, aside from a couple of months when they stopped because of the coronavirus. They have additional dates scheduled from this month into September.

“We are going to continue to bargain in good faith with the hospital and continue to ask for the community’s support of the (nurses),” Kroetch said.

Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.

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