Providence Health System lands on labor's Unfair List

PORTLAND, OR -- The Northwest Oregon Labor Council (NOLC) has placed the Sisters of Providence Health System on its Unfair List at the request of Painters District Council 55 and the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council for failure to pay area standard wages and benefits.

The craft unions are notifying all AFL-CIO-affiliated local union trustees of health and welfare benefits of the situation and asking that they remove Providence Health System from their lists of health care providers.

At issue is Providence's use of non-union contractors at clinics being built throughout the Portland metropolitan area who allegedly aren't paying health and welfare benefits or prevailing wages to employees, said John Kirkpatrick, a business agent for Council 55.

"It's unconscionable that a health provider such as Providence would thumb its nose at union contractors that provide workers health care coverage and give the work to companies that don't," said Kirkpatrick.

Portland-based NOLC facilitated a meeting last summer with building trades unions and Kenneth Zinsli, regional director of real estate and facilities management at Providence Health System. At that meeting union leaders reminded Zinsli of a similar meeting in 1990 which led Providence's assistant administrator James S. Werfelmann to draft a set of principles regarding future construction contracts by the Sisters of Providence.

In it, Werfelmann (who is no longer with the company) said Providence would require all future contractors to provide health benefits to regular workers and subcontractors in a reasonable time period, that contractors would pay "a fair and just wage established by prevailing practices in the community," and that it would not "bid shop" contracts over $500,000.

Council 55 maintains that non-union painting subcontractors didn't pay prevailing wages on at least two Providence construction projects and that employees co-pay more than half the premiums for "employer-provided" coverage -- if they get coverage at all.

The new clinics are in Milwaukie, Tigard, Sherwood, Gresham and Aloha. The new Gresham clinic is being built 90 percent non-union, according to the building trades council.

Council 55 said the non-union painting companies in question are Sundeleaf Painting Co., Milbradt Painting,West Coast Coatings and West Coast Finishers. The primary general contractor has been non-union Westwood Swinerton Construction.

Kirkpatrick emphasized that organized labor doesn't consider it to be "health care coverage" when employees have to wait three to six months to become eligible and then pay most of the premium and a high deductible.

"It's easy for an employer to say that 'yes,' we provide health care benefits,'" he said. "But it's not a benefit if the employer makes employees pay for it -- it's a deduction of wages."

Kirkpatrick said that under building trades contracts employers pay 100 percent of the premium for workers and families.

In a Nov. 18 letter to Ron Fortune, executive secretary of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, Zinsli said that since the meeting he received only one written complaint and one verbal complaint and that he followed up on both. "I would strongly recommend to any member of the council that has a complaint, if they would submit it in writing with specifics, I will be more than happy to follow up on their concerns and respond back to the council," Zinsli wrote.

Wally Mehrens, executive secretary of the Columbia-Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council, said Providence's use of non-union contractors has gone on too long. He said the non-union companies are finding success "based on what they don't pay their employees -- which puts our union contractors at a disadvantage" when bidding jobs.

Referring to the Providence citing, Mehrens said, "We have lit the match, now it's your turn (union locals) to put on the heat."


Dec. 5, 1997 issue

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