Gov. Jay Inslee has reconvened negotiations between Seattle-based Swedish Health Services and its labor union, his office announced Wednesday.
By stepping into the rancor, Inslee hopes to settle a months-long contract dispute that caused 7,800 workers to strike in January, prompting the closure of Swedish’s emergency rooms in Ballard and Redmond.
The announcement comes a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that U.S. hospitals prepare for the spread of the novel coronavirus that has killed thousands worldwide.
“The outbreak has put a real focus on the health care system,” Inslee spokesman David Postman said in an interview. “I think there is a recognition that we all need to be on top of our game right now.”
Inslee is bringing in a new mediator, Thomas Kochan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Kochan plans to meet separately with each side this week, and then hold four days of intensive negotiations beginning March 5 in SeaTac.
“I thank the leaders on both sides who have embraced the need to hit reset on negotiations,” Inslee said in a statement. “We have strong commitments to use this opportunity to settle a set of new contracts.”
Before the strike, Inslee talked with top officials from the hospital and the union, Service Employees International Union Healthcare 1199NW, but he wasn’t able to head off the walkout.
Last week he met with Dr. Rod Hochman CEO of Providence St. Joseph Health, which is affiliated with Swedish, and Diane Sosne, president of the union.
“There seemed to be more openness to it at this point,” Postman said, “and a sense on all parts that something needed to change.”
Swedish workers are “cautiously optimistic,” said Anne Powers, a nurse and member of the bargaining team. Hochman, she said, hasn’t resolved the nurses’ concerns about low staffing levels and a lack of security, among other issues.
“If someone with a lot of political clout wants to step in …, we are all for it,” Powers said.
Inslee has not set a hard deadline to finish the talks. If the parties haven’t reached an agreement by March 8, they could schedule additional talks with the mediator, Postman said.