MultiCare Indigo Urgent Care clinics could see staff go on strike in the near future for possibly two weeks, according to a union representing providers.
The action is the result of a vote Monday by clinic staff represented by the Union of American Physicians & Dentists. The represented workers took the vote before the two sides return to the bargaining table on Wednesday.
“Currently, a work stoppage for a minimum of two weeks is being considered,” Vivi Le, communications manager for the Union of American Physicians & Dentists, told The News Tribune on Monday.
The union, in a news release Monday, said the strike vote “was approved by a 96 percent margin and clears the way for a strike in as soon as 10 days across 24 urgent care clinic locations.”
The union represents around 80 doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners at the clinics.
“The number of sites has yet to be determined but it could involve all 24 clinic sites where UAPD represents providers,” Le told The News Tribune via email. “It could also involve all of the workers (about 80) since the vote was in majority support.”
MultiCare in a statement to The News Tribune, said, “Indigo has been bargaining in good faith with UAPD since November 2022. We have held 19 bargaining sessions, one of which included the help of a federal mediator. We have received no official notice of a strike vote from UAPD as of Sept. 25 … and we remain committed to reaching a workable agreement.”
The health system added, “In bargaining proposals, we continue to invest in market-competitive wages and benefits for our physicians and advanced practice providers (APPs).”
Scott Thompson, MultiCare media representative, told The News Tribune via email, “During our last bargaining session, we offered new, additional wage increases to demonstrate our commitment and willingness to reach a tentative agreement with UAPD. UAPD did not find this further increase sufficient for agreement.”
UAPD contends that “key issues” at the table include “excessive patient loads, forcing providers to see patients beyond their 12-hour shifts, no scheduled meal breaks, and wages that do not keep pace with the rising cost of living in Washington.”
Across the 24 clinics, Le said, “About 26 providers have left in the past year, and those vacancies have yet to be filled.”
The union, in its release, said the clinics are under continued stress, “seeing patients who might otherwise arrive at already overcrowded hospital emergency rooms across the Puget Sound.”
A provider who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation told The News Tribune in an interview Monday that the expectation is to see as many patients “as walk in the door.”
He estimates he has just a few minutes “in the room with the patient to do a history, a physical exam, and then educate the patient on the plan on prognosis and things,” he said.
In his experience outside of urgent care, he said a comparable session would take a total of 45 minutes.
“That’s the biggest stressor,” he said of patient volume and hours worked with no breaks. “Some of my colleagues stay till 10 o’clock at night sometimes. So it’s a 14-hour shift,” he said.
Thompson wrote that “Indigo carefully monitors patient load and care quality. We will see all patients during our normal business hours. We have protocols in place to provide for patients who seek care near the end of our business hours.”
Thompson added that “UAPD’s proposal would require Indigo to potentially turn away patients who seek care near the end of normal business hours.”
Thompson also noted that the providers “do not have scheduled meal periods. Instead, they work with their clinic teams to schedule lunch periods during normal patient flow.”
The Indigo provider who spoke with The News Tribune pointed to the widespread shortage of primary care providers causing more people to increasingly use urgent care staff as their primary care provider.
He said some patients “try to schedule appointments with me for follow-ups three months in advance,” a primary care scheduling model that urgent cares, specializing in limited, acute care cases, were not designed to accommodate.
Add to that, more patients seeking treatment for chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease have made clinic cases “a lot more complicated than pre-COVID,” he said.
In August, eight Indigo clinics in King and Pierce counties saw informational pickets organized by UAPD-represented medical staff as labor negotiations have failed to produce an agreement.
MulltiCare closed its Indigo clinic in Tacoma’s James Center earlier this year, replaced by an Obstetrics Access Clinic. In April, MultiCare opened a new Indigo clinic in Stadium District.
The James Center clinic had faced informational picketing in the past and its UAPD-represented workers were among those across 20 clinics involved in a two-day strike in November 2020 over COVID safety and similar workload/break issues to those highlighted in the current talks.
“The patient load is just too much for what they give us,” said the provider who spoke with The News Tribune. “I think there’s a large possibility that a two-week work stoppage is attainable.”
Thompson of MultiCare said that “Should a strike occur, we have a contingency plan to provide safe, uninterrupted care for our patients and a supportive working environment for our physicians and APPs.”
This story was originally published September 26, 2023, 5:15 AM.