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Martha and Mary workers resume labor negotiations

"POULSBO - Citing a need for improved resident care, registered nurses and licensed practical nurses at Martha and Mary Lutheran Services last week opted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 381. The decision came less than one year after a controversial election in which a majority of non-licensed employees at the Poulsbo's oldest care center voted to unionize for the purpose of collective bargaining. Last November, following a failed election to gain union representation, officials at UFCW Local 381 filed official charges against Martha and Mary claiming that the administration there used coercion and interference tactics to sink the vote. A second election was allowed in January, marking a complete reversal in the previous tally. Unlike the situation earlier this year though, the administration at Martha and Mary immediately gave the green light to the RNs and LPNs to join the union. It was a fairly strange thing, admitted Paul Festag, union representative for Local 381. The request was filed with Mary and Mary last Monday and was recognized in just a few days. The union had expected a response from the center would take three to four weeks and was somewhat caught off guard by the quick turnaround, Festag added. They just automatically recognized it. So that's that, he remarked. The recognition brings the number of employees represented by the Bremerton-based union up to about 250 of the 300 or so who currently work at Martha and Mary. Calls to the union hall reporting staffing and safety concerns and questionable management styles have mobilized the Martha and Mary employees to change their working conditions through contract negotiations, Festag said. The nurses coming on board is a signal that things have got to get better. Discussing the decision of the LPNs and RNs to unionize, Martha and Mary administrator Denney Austin said a voluntary okay was given on behalf of the center in lieu of an actual vote. The union has had reports of staff levels which do not adequately meet the special needs of the elderly residents at the center, Festag noted. Staffing patterns are still the same, Austin responded, adding that five or six nurses have since signed on at Harrison Hospital in Bremerton, which recently opened pediatric and maternity clinics. I don't think anything has changed that dramatically. The administrator went on to explain that the loss of nurses was not unique to Martha and Mary and that several facilities in Kitsap County have experienced similar staff issues. Some of our nurses have left and gone to the hospital in Bremerton but I don't think patient care has been affected, Austin said. With reports of upward of 20 patients per aide coming in from employees at the center, Festag disagreed. Improved resident care was stated as the primary motivation for organizing by workers, he explained, adding that the union had an extensive file on additional issues that the center had to address. Lindsey Gearlach, a cook at Martha and Mary's long-term facility, has been in the UFCW Local 381 since January. When it comes to resident care, it has been the long history of this industry to pay low wages with few benefits for an extremely important job, Gearlach said. High quality staff is critical to the care and well being of residents who expect to be treated with care and dignity. Festag said the next step was for employees and management at the center was discussions at the negotiating table. They're trying to get things better there, he remarked. Right now the mood's pretty dour. According to the most recent Aging and Adult Service Administration Resident Care Survey, Martha and Mary was found to be in substantial compliance with laws regulating adult care facilities. The 43-page report, released on Jan. 14 did, however, list a number of administrative and safety issues that should be addressed at the center. It is these issues which Festag said fueled the nurses' call to unionize. I can't get anybody to wear a (union) button unless they want to, he said. But anyone who visits over there... they're going to see a whole lot of buttons. "

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