PASCO -- Management and employees at Lourdes Medical Center remain deadlocked on two expired union contracts covering nurses, technicians and other hospital workers.
About 30 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers and Service Employees International Union picketed outside the Pasco hospital Thursday demanding fair terms for hospital workers.
But the hospital's administration countered that it believes fair terms have been offered and rejected by the two unions.
The bone of contention is a program called the Extended Illness Bank that allows hospital employees to accrue hours they can use -- and get fully paid -- if they have a long illness, or need to take time off to care for a sick child, spouse or parent.
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Currently, employees must wait 24 work hours -- the equivalent of three eight-hour days -- before they can start using the illness bank benefit.
The hospital is proposing to extend that to 56 hours for nurses represented by the UFCW and 64 hours for other hospital employees represented by SEIU, union representatives said.
The hospital also wants new employees to have short-term disability insurance, which would pay 60 percent of their salaries while they are off work, rather than accrue hours in the illness bank. The hospital would pay the entire cost for the insurance.
Lourdes CEO John Serle said people already working for Lourdes would be grandfathered in and continue to accrue illness bank hours, and would keep hours already in the bank.
Serle said an extended waiting period would help the hospital curtail costs for the illness bank program.
"We're trying to figure out creative ways to keep costs down," he said.
The employees view the extended waiting period as the hospital making it harder to access their benefits and trying to push them into using paid time off -- hours accrued for vacations, holidays, sick days or personal days -- instead of the illness bank.
Shahna Airoldi, a Lourdes ultrasound technician and SEIU member, said she is so worried about losing the illness bank hours that she went ahead and had an elective surgery that could have waited until next year because she feared the benefit wouldn't be there.
Kathy Christianson, a registered nurse and UFCW member, said she's concerned about the abundance of single mothers who work for Lourdes and have small children, and what happens to them if a child gets sick.
If the hospital switches to a short-term disability plan, parents couldn't use that benefit to take time off to care for a child, husband or parent the way the illness bank allows.
And if they themselves get sick, they only would get 60 percent of their pay while struggling with an illness, Christianson said.
"I keep thinking of the poor single mom whose kid is diagnosed with leukemia," Christianson said. "She can't afford to be off if she's not going to be paid her whole wage."
Serle said part of the problem with the illness bank is a recent change in state law that redefined the Family Medical Leave Act to allow illness bank hours to be used not only to care for a sick child, husband or parent, but also an in-law or a grandparent.
He said he believes that creates a scenario in which someone who really may not be needed to care for an in-law or a grandparent would use the benefit to get paid to visit family members.
The extended waiting period proposed by the hospital asks for a show of good faith from employees, he said.
"If you're not willing to take some of your own time, then probably it isn't really necessary to go see grandpa and grandma," Serle said.
Serle said despite the contract disagreements, Lourdes' management values and respects its employees -- and their right to be in a union and to picket.
"This by no means disparages our employees or our associates," Serle said. "We just have some disagreements on some of these costs we anticipate going forward. We have a great staff."
Union members said they are pushing for better contract terms because they want to make sure the hospital keeps and continues to recruit great staff members and to provide excellent health care to Tri-Citians.
"It's an awesome place," Airoldi said. "The ministry and the mission statement keep me here. I love the heart and soul of what Lourdes is supposed to represent."