The Registered Nurses and Physical Therapists Association voted overwhelmingly yesterday to accept a tentative contract with Group Health Association, ending after 30 days the union's strike against the area's largest health maintenance organization.
Bettie Payne, communications director for GHA, said the 85 nurses should return to work at GHA's five facilities tomorrow morning. "We are pleased that it is over and we can provide an excellent quality of health care to our 112,000 members," she said.
Negotiators for GHA and the nurses reached a settlement early yesterday morning that promises nurses higher wages and more help--the two issues that had led to the strike. The GHA board of trustees still must vote on the contract. Payne said yesterday that she thinks the directors will ratify the actions of its negotiators.
Payne said the contract provides for a minimum wage hike of 16.2 percent in the first year of the three-year contract. New discussions on wages will take place in the following two years, she said.
Thomas J. Gagliardo, who was the nurse's chief negotiator, said that the agreement provides for arbitration that could result in a wage increase even higher than the 16.2 percent agreed upon by negotiations.
The nurses are guaranteed the 16.2 percent increase retroactive from Jan. 1 of this year. But the nurses also are free, beginning tomorrow, to seek even higher wages before a three-member arbitration panel made up of representatives from the nurses and GHA, plus a neutral third party.
For the second and third years of the contract, GHA and its nurses have 15 days to negotiate new wages. If they fail to reach agreement in that time, the matter automatically goes to binding arbitration before the same panel.
The average wage for GHA nurses is $16,977 and would go to $19,727 under the minimum raise proposal agreed upon yesterday. The starting salary for nurses is $14,627, which would go up to about $17,000.
Gagliardo said GHA also agreed to increase its nursing staff, which striking nurses complained was too small.
Payne said five full-time nurses and a part-time nurse will be hired this year, and if GHA doesn't lose a significant number of its members by Jan. 1 of next year, an additional two nurses will be hired.
A joint labor-management committee was given the authority to review and hire GHA staff, although the GHA board of trustees could override the committee's decisions with a majority vote, according to Gagliardo.
Througout the strike, nurses claimed that staffing shortages did not allow them time to counsel patients, a part of GHA's emphasis on preventive care. Payne said the new contract recognizes that need. The contract provides that each nurse be given an average of an hour a day to meet with patients.
Other benefits include an increase from $10,000 to $20,000 this year and $30,000 later in a special fund used to pay educational and travel expenses for nurses who work at the association.
Payne said she felt both sides were tiring of the strike, which was settled just before the "open season" period that begins Monday, during which employes throughout Washington are permitted to shop around for health insurance plans.
Some labor leaders had been urging members of their unions to leave the GHA program if the strike was not settled by the beginning of open season. Payne said yesterday that she did not believe those threats affected the negotiations.