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Unionized nurses negotiating a new contract with Bozeman Health have reached an impasse over pay, saying the hospital’s final offer is not commensurate with Bozeman’s cost of living.

Bozeman Health and the Montana Nurses Association Local #4, which represents about 400 nurses at Deaconess Hospital, began negotiating a new contract in early March and have had 13 bargaining sessions.

Bozeman Health on Aug. 4 presented the union with its last, best and final offer on the contract. Union members are scheduled to vote on the proposed contract next week. If union members vote in favor, the contract will be ratified.

Negotiations have turned sour over the nurses’ pay. Union members say the hospital has advocated to switch from the existing wage-scale to performance-based pay, and that the final proposed wages aren’t livable.

“We’re looking for wages that are comparable to other hospitals in the state if not better, since we have a considerably higher cost of living here,” said Bee Bowman, a registered nurse on the medial unit at Bozeman Health who sits on the union’s bargaining team.

The final offer from Bozeman Health proposed a 3-year contract, with both a wage scale and a performance-based “bonus” built into the compensation package, said Kiera Pattison, the system director of nursing at Bozeman Health.

In 2023 and 2024, nurses could earn an additional 2% from the performance-based pay if all the nurses collectively average a score of 3.0 or higher on their annual evaluation, Pattison said.

“(Performance-based pay) is a different system with subjectivity,” Bowman said. “It isn’t necessarily equitable, or a system that applies to all nurses.”

Bowman said a wage scale, similar to what is negotiated under the union’s previous contract which expired in April, is more transparent.

“Nurses rely on that wage scale to know what they’re going to make, to know if they can afford to live here,” she said.

Pattison, on the hospital’s bargaining team, said the hospital has worked to create a contract that benefits nurses and attracts high performing employees in all aspects. The hospital has also respected, and kept, the desired wage scale, she said.

“We feel like this agreement is probably one of the best we’ve read in Montana that the MNA represents,” Pattison said. “We feel that it’s going to get our nurses where we need to be. It’s one of the highest compensation packages in Montana.”

The union also wants a 2-year contract rather than the 3-year contract, citing Bozeman’s fast growth as a reason to negotiate for a new contract sooner rather than later.

The hospital said the negotiations have spanned since March in part because this contract is a near complete overhaul of the previous contracts.

“We’ve taken a collective bargaining agreement that, since 1985, not a lot had been changed. We spent a lot of time to put language in place that makes it understandable and user-friendly. We’ve heard from nurses its confusing,” Pattison said.

The two organizations are using a mediator, and the union has filed two unfair labor practice complaints against Bozeman Health for bargaining in bad faith with the National Board of Labor Relations.

“The two complaints that have been filed hold no merit,” Pattison said. “We stand with integrity.”

The bargaining team recommends that union members veto the contract, Bowman said.

When asked what the hospital would do if the proposal is vetoed, Pattison said the bargaining team was committed to supporting Bozeman Health nurses and would respect the vote.

“We would seek to get the parties back to the table, I would imagine with the mediator, so we could identify the areas of the hospital’s last, best and final offer that were problematic for the nurses,” said Amy Hauschild, an MNA labor representative.

If a resolution cannot be found after that, the union could escalate the situation as a last resort, Hauschild said. As nurses move to vote next week, the union sent out a petition asking for local support with the negotiations.

The contract negotiations come at a time when the hospital is grappling with a shortage of nurses, Larson said.

“I was originally hired in 2009. Since I’ve been here, I’ve never seen any conditions like this as far as shortages,” he said.

The shortage is due to nurses leaving because of the cost of living, the hospital relying on temporary traveling nurses, and older nurses who are set to retire, Larson said.

“The constant retraining of coworkers is challenging and ultimately leads to less experience at the hospital,” he said.

Within Montana, and even the U.S., there is a nursing shortage, Pattison said. Bozeman Health has had to expand its number of beds with the pandemic and growth of Bozeman, which has put pressure on its nursing staff.

Overall, Pattison said the negotiations have not been fraught.

“We have a good relationship with the MNA and the bargaining team. It’s been nothing but collegial and full of grace,” Pattison said.

Both Larson and Bowman agreed, saying that overall, the negotiation process has been smooth.

“I genuinely believe they want to recruit and retain nurses as much as we do, so I would hope we would reach an agreement,” Bowman said.

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Juliana Sukut can be reached at 582-2630 or jsukut@dailychronicle.com

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