A supporter staples a sign to be used during a nurses strike against Logan Health in Kalispell. Credit: Justin Franz

Nurses in Kalispell working the frontlines of one of the state’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks got a rare bit of good news last week when they scored their first union contract promising better wages and a seat at the table on staffing decisions at Logan Health. 

Earlier this summer, after negotiating for 18 months, talks between members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare 1199NW and management at Logan (formerly Kalispell Regional Healthcare) broke down and nurses went on a three-day strike. The union representing 650 registered nurses at Logan Health alleged that the hospital was not negotiating in good faith and that it was more interested in busting the union than in reaching a deal. Hospital officials rejected that take and countered that the union’s demands for higher pay and increased staffing were “unrealistic.”

But on Sept. 16, SEIU officials announced that their members had voted to ratify their first contract. The deal includes a stronger voice in staffing decisions and an increase in wages and benefits designed to entice health care workers to stay in an area where housing prices continue to skyrocket

“This contract means that I can afford to give my kids the life I always imagined for them. I can afford to stay in our house, spend more time with my kids instead of working extra to make ends meet, and know that I have a voice in making my workplace safe,” said Sarah Shanklin-Johnson, a registered nurse in the ICU and member of the union’s bargaining team. “And I can stand taller knowing that I’m providing the quality of care our community needs.”

Nurses at Logan Health first unionized in 2019. The union and management met on and off  through 2020 and early 2021 trying to forge a deal. A sticking point was compensation. The union said the hospital could afford to pay more, but management said the demands were “unreasonable.” Meanwhile, in March, the hospital announced nearly $11 million in pay raises for all non-union employees, raising the minimum wage for non-clinical staff from $8.50 to $13 per hour, and for clinical staff to $14 per hour. 

The union had also taken issue with other spending at Logan Health. In the last few years, it has opened a $40 million children’s hospital and expanded its reach beyond the Flathead Valley, and this year it is undergoing a rebranding from Kalispell Regional Healthcare to Logan Health, which hospital officials estimate will cost between $800,000 and $1 million

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.