Labor board will investigate nurses association’s complaint

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Nurses work in the new ER wing at Kalispell Regional Medical Center. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake file)

In its complaint filed Wednesday with the National Labor Relations Board, the Montana Nurses Association alleges Kalispell Regional Healthcare violated the National Labor Relations Act by engaging in unfair labor practices.

The federal law essentially forbids employers from interfering with or restraining employees from organizing a labor organization for “collective bargaining purposes,” or from working together to improve terms and conditions of employment.

According to official documents submitted to the National Labor Relations Board, the nurses association alleges the hospital “has interfered with employee rights under the Act by causing employees to be laid off and replaced by supervisors for the purpose of interfering with the right to organize among the employer’s employees.”

The complaint is being processed by the National Labor Relations Board and will later be investigated. According to a Thursday press release, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the state’s largest union, stands with the Nurses Association. Federation President Eric Feaver stated “nurses are the backbone of any hospital. It’s shameful that Kalispell Regional Healthcare is putting profits and union animus ahead of quality people care.”

The charges were filed after KRH Chief Nursing Executive Teresa Fisher released a memorandum last week to the hospital’s charge nurses, announcing their job positions have been eliminated, but they could apply for a new role of “shift unit supervisor.”

The role elimination is part of the hospital’s recent announcement of a “leadership redesign” that will consist of “changes in leadership structure, modified titles, roles and/or responsibilities of approximately 130 KRH leaders.”

According to Robin Haux, labor program director for the Montana Nurses Association, the association has learned from KRH staff and others that the hospital has laid off between 100 and 140 charge nurses, or registered nurses responsible for the management of a patient-care unit.

However, according to KRH Communications and Marketing Director Mellody Sharpton, the claim is false.

In an email Thursday, Sharpton said “contrary to MNA’s assertion, KRH has not ‘laid off more than 100 charge nurses.’ Rather, KRH is in the process of redesigning its leadership structure.” This is one of four pieces of information provided by the Nurses Association from sources that Sharpton alleges are “blatantly false.” She also maintains the redesign will not impact patient care, that KRH has not taken any action to interfere with employee’s rights to form a union and that there are more than 100 open positions at KRH for registered nurses, including bedside nurses, supervisors and directors. However, Sharpton did not provide insight into how many of those positions fall into the shift unit supervisor category.

According to information provided to the Nurses Association, there are only 40 to 70 new shift unit supervisor positions available. In addition to these supervisor positions, there may be other part-time, full-time and per-diem positions as well. Per diem positions, or per-day positions, are need-based, typically offering on-call work without earned benefits such as sick or vacation days.

No details were provided by KRH regarding how many of the 100 open positions are more managerial in nature.

“Typically, charge nurses are more senior and more experienced nurses and most hospitals have some sort of charge-nurse role,” Haux said. “This is a function that supports quality patient care. It’s mind-boggling to us that they chose to do this.”

The Nurses Association has yet to confirm information gleaned from hospital staff with Kalispell Regional.

According to last week’s restructuring announcement, the hospital expects “minimal involuntary departures,” with the redesign, but officials did not provide estimates as to how many employees may be affected.

“It’s a disappointing move affecting quality care in the community,” Vicky Byrd, executive director for the Montana Nurses Association, said in a press release Wednesday. “Running a hospital without charge nurses is highly unusual and goes against the grain of those positions providing good high-quality patient care.”

The press release detailed how the Nurses Association has been in “constant communication” with many KRH nurses interested in forming a nurses union for more than 12 months now.

The allegations have emerged less than three months after KRH reached a $24 million settlement in a whistleblower lawsuit that put an end to a federal investigation into the hospital’s “compensation and referral practices.”

Throughout the duration of the lawsuit, the hospital continually countered various charges, claiming its “competitive compensation attract the caliber of talent to this area that we believe the people of Northwest Montana deserve.”

Prior to the settlement, KRH had allotted more than $21 million to the case, which is considered one of the largest False Claims Act recoveries in Montana.

Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com.

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