Workforce Watch: Nurses on strike; a need for public defenders
Nurses around the Portland region voted to strike. Concurrently, there is a deficit of public defenders.
Both of these job sectors — health care providers and public defenders — are critical to the health and stability of the community, and both are generally well-paying fields.
So what's going on with the workforce?
We checked in with Gail Krumenauer, state employment economist with the Oregon Employment Department, on trends in the workforce.
Nurses on strike
Nurses voted to strike June 2 at Providence Milwaukie Hospital and Providence Willamette Falls Medical Center on an upcoming date yet to be determined.
This comes after 1,600 nurses voted to strike at Providence St. Vincent on May 3.
The Providence nurses want stronger patient safety standards, more nurse staffing, affordable health care and a fair compensation package that allows hospitals to "recruit and retain" more nursing staff, Pamplin Media Group previously reported.
Employment department data shows nurses already are quitting left and right in Oregon.
Krumenauer said that in the health care sector, Oregon's nursing and residential care sector lost 300 jobs in April, and 1,500 jobs over the past year.
"Nursing and residential care facilities have seen a precipitous decline in employment, both in Oregon and across the U.S. since the pandemic began," she said.
Oregon's private hospitals lost 200 jobs in April and 800 jobs over the past year, the department found. But, there's also temp and traveling health care workers to consider in the count.
"One thing to note here (about hospitals) is that some hospital work — we don't know the exact extent — has been supported through temporary help agencies last year and into at least the early months of 2022," Krumenauer said. "That type of contracted work wouldn't be captured in the hospital employment if and when workers (such as traveling nurses) are not specifically on the hospital's payroll, but rather on a temp agency's payroll."
Department data shows the annual mean registered nurse salary in Oregon in 2021 was $98,192, and in 2020 there were 36,837 registered nurses working in the state. These are the latest numbers available.
Based on the call for strikes, it seems this compensation is not enough for the tough job nursing is these days.
Need for public defenders
Multnomah County, Washington County and the entire Portland metro area is experiencing a spreading shortage of public defenders, among other court-related problems slowing prosecutions in the area, Pamplin Media Group previously reported.
PMG reporters found some legal experts are calling the shortage a "constitutional crisis," since all criminal offenders are guaranteed representation by the state if they can't afford an attorney of their own. While there are many contributing factors, experts say the crisis is straining the criminal justice system to its breaking point.
There's definitely a need for more public defenders in the region, and although data about the specifics of the sector is difficult to itemize, the compensation in this field is certainly attractive, department data suggests.
Krumenauer said it's difficult for the department to parse out the effects related to public defenders specifically, because public defenders tend to work for city or county government sectors, which is mixed in with the public education sector in their data.
"The broader local government sector has struggled to regain jobs lost in the pandemic recession," she said. "That's for a variety of reasons, and I'm unable to parse out the effects related to public defenders specifically."
Krumenauer also said there are a good number of public defenders who work on contract for governments, but are actually employed in private nonprofits, making the numbers difficult to find.
She said the department gets annual estimates of employment and wage ranges for all lawyers — private or public sector — combined when the occupation-specific data comes from the Occupational Employment and Wages Survey.
The estimates are collected on a rolling basis, representing about 18 months of data.
The survey found that in 2020, there were 6,549 people employed as lawyers.
In 2021, these lawyers' mean annual income was $130,818, the department found.
With Portland being the 12th most expensive city to live in the U.S., average income here is $62,603.
That said, the compensation for both lawyers and nurses is well above the average. These fields may need to look at further quality of life benefits for workers in order to attain and retain talent, one of the main requests for the nurses' strike.
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