OPINION: Neighborcare Union an Inspiring, Positive Change

by Valentina Warner, MD

For the past 20 years, I have worked as a physician at Neighborcare’s Rainier Beach clinic. I went into community health because I wanted to use my education to provide high quality medical care to those in my community, particularly those who are often treated as second class citizens. I wanted to find a place where, when people are facing hard times and medical problems come up, there is an open door for them, regardless of their insurance, immigration status, or financial situation. I came to Neighborcare because it was committed to the same values.

For over 50 years, Neighborcare clinics have stood out as a refuge of hope for working people and those struggling with homelessness, poverty, mental illness and addiction. Neighborcare’s mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to our most vulnerable community members, regardless of their ability to pay.

Neighborcare is a non-profit network of almost 30 clinics and the largest provider of primary medical, dental and behavioral health care services in the Seattle area, serving 75,000 patients a year. Our patients are Black, brown, white and Asian, both native born and immigrants. Our patients speak dozens of languages, for which we provide interpreter services at their medical and dental visits.

My 500 coworkers and I — ranging from physicians, nurses, dental and medical assistants to receptionists and clerks — have dedicated our lives to Neighborcare because we believe deeply in the organization’s mission.

I was trained to provide a high standard of care, and in order to do that I need the support of a well-functioning clinic system, from the call center to billing to nursing and mental health care. But in recent years, we have seen some concerning changes at Neighborcare. We need to improve staffing levels so patients get timely, high quality care, and we must have fair wages for all job titles to reduce workforce turnover. Wages for many Neighborcare workers are too low to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of living in the Seattle area, which has made it difficult to recruit and retain qualified staff.

That is why in November of 2018, Neighborcare workers voted by a landslide 75 percent to form our union with SEIU Healthcare 1199NW. We wanted to have a strong voice to advocate for our patients, community, coworkers, families and the mission of Neighborcare itself. This union election was historic, because we formed one bargaining unit, uniting every job title from clerks to physicians.

Now, we are in contract negotiations with Neighborcare management and we are trying to achieve urgently needed, concrete improvements including better staffing, a real voice in decision making, affordable health benefits, racial justice and living wages for every job.

Many employers have found that unionization improves recruitment and retention, and that union members can be powerful partners. Recently, members of SEIU 1199NW attended a Seattle City Council hearing to support legislation that would increase funding for human services at the rate of inflation so that there are adequate resources to care for our city’s most vulnerable residents.

Since we formed our union and started negotiations, we are already seeing inspiring, positive change at Neighborcare. Morale is improving because we now have hope. Our union at Neighborcare exemplifies Mahatma Gandhi’s admonition to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” because we are committed to equity and justice in our decision making and how we treat each other.

We formed our union because we realized that no politician or executive was going to solve our problems for us. I feel we are living the truth in the words of poet June Jordan: “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” It is our hope that management understands we have the best interest of the organization at heart. I am confident our union will improve our Neighborcare community and bring us closer to our mission.

It is time for management to partner with front line staff so we can continue Neighborcare Health’s historic leadership in the delivery of excellent healthcare.

Valentina Warner has been a physician at Neighborcare Health clinic at Rainier Beach for the past 20 years.

Featured Image: Neighborcare healthcare workers who are members of the SEIU Healthcare 1199NW bargaining team. (Courtesy Photo)


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