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Nurses voted to strike at Providence St. Vincent on May 3, but the hospital has time to avert a strike before it starts.

PMG PHOTO: SALLY SEGAR - The Oregon Nurses Association, a union covering nurses across the state, organized an informational picket outside Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in March.Over 80% of nurses voted to strike at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center on Tuesday, May 3, after a two-week voting period. The union's labor cabinet authorized the strike the following day.

Although a strike isn't guaranteed, Oregon Nurses Association nurses will meet this week to begin preparing for a strike, according to a press release. Once ONA calls a strike, the union is required to give the hospital a 10-day notice.

The hospital has a chance to come to an agreement with the union before that, according to ONA representative Myrna Jensen. Two bargaining sessions are already scheduled for May 10 and May 23.

If the hospital and the union can't come to terms, ONA will then issue the 10-day notice. Even after that, the hospital will have those 10 days to come to an agreement with the union and avert the strike — or start preparing for it, which would likely entail ceasing admissions and transferring patients.

It's not clear how long a potential strike would be, Jensen said, but it's possible for both parties to continue negotiations up until the strike would begin.

The union nurses voted for a strike based on Providence St. Vincent's "unfair labor practice." Jensen said the ONA believes the hospital has violated the National Labor Relations Act.

Jensen said nurses have been questioned by managers about union activities, and they've been discriminated against and threatened because of union participation.

ONA steward Rebecca Sudduth, who has worked at the hospital's Emergency Room for over eight years, said hospital staff even came into the nurses' break room and periodically threw away the union's fliers.

In a statement provided by regional communications director Gary Walker, Providence said it "strongly denies the allegations of (National Labor Relations Act) violations."

The statement also said, without elaborating further, that the union is aware of the designated places where ONA can exchange information with its members — for example, break rooms — and places where that is not allowed.

Nurses have other concerns, too. Their "common-sense proposals," as ONA puts it, are stronger patient safety standards, safe staffing requirements, affordable healthcare, better paid leave and a fair compensation package that brings in more nurses and puts existing nurses at the market rate.

Sudduth said she loves the staff and community at Providence St. Vincent and wants to keep working there, but without the changes that the union is seeking, the hospital will have a hard time retaining its nurses and finding new ones.

Sudduth said part of why she voted to strike is because she feels labor talks are at a standstill.PMG PHOTO: SALLY SEGAR - The Oregon Nurses Association organized an informational picket outside Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in March. The union called for contract improvements to improve patient and nurse safety.

Because the nurses have been working under an expired contract, they are missing benefits they previously had, like the educations benefits that help pay Sudduth's tuition, she said, and it's frustrating.

"We still don't want it to affect our patients. We don't want to have the hospital partially shut down. We want to work," she said. "We have mortgages to pay and all that."

Sudduth also mentioned talking to nurses who have been there longer than her, and they're "exasperated," Sudduth said.

They tell her, "(St. Vincent) used to be the place to be, like the place to work in Portland. It was even hard to get a job there."

"Hopefully we'll get back there," Sudduth added.

In protest of the hospital not implementing its "common sense proposals," nurses at Providence St. Vincent organized an informational picket on March 15. Now, ONA members at Providence Willamette Falls — another Providence hospital with an expired contract — are hosting a picket on May 11.

Providence Hood River also has an expired contract with ONA as of March, and a contract is set to expire May 31 at Providence Milwaukie.

In a statement, Providence said it has attempted to negotiate with ONA for over seven months to get nurses a comprehensive pay and benefits package. It said ONA has rejected the hospital's office to engage a federal neutral mediator, and the union has "at times delayed on agreeing to additional dates for discussions."

"The strike authorization announcement is just the latest attempt to delay meaningful discussion, a move that only serves to prevent our valued nurses from receiving the substantial pay raises and expanded benefits they deserve," the statement said.

Jensen said the nurses on ONA's negotiating team are scheduling around their work schedules and doing the bargaining on their own time. Sometimes finding a common date that works for everyone is tricky, she said.

"This is not something that they're getting paid to do," Jensen said. "They are doing it because they are looking out for their coworkers, they're looking out for their patients. And they have always been willing to meet with Providence at the table."

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