Hillsboro Medical Center employees march to re-energize union
Employees at Hillsboro Medical Center marched around the facility on Wednesday, June 22, demanding better pay, working conditions and representation.
Workers there have unionized and say they've been negotiating with administration at the facility run by Tuality Healthcare for months. They say they've gotten nowhere in those talks, though their employer says they have been working to address their concerns.
The hospital used to be called Tuality Community Hospital, but it partnered with Oregon Health & Science University in 2016. The hospital shares its patients with OHSU and now bears the public institution's name on the building.
But employees say the Hillsboro hospital is an OHSU facility in name only. It's still a privately owned hospital and a separate legal entity, with employees on the Tuality Healthcare payroll. They don't get the union representation that employees at the main OHSU campus in Portland do. And employees who have worked at both locations say Hillsboro employees get lower pay for more hours and poorer working conditions.
Other healthcare professionals have been organizing for better pay and conditions in recent months, too, including workers at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center north of Beaverton — where nurses voted Thursday, June 23, to reject a proposed agreement with management, raising the specter of a labor strike.
Employees at the Hawthorn Walk-in Center in Hillsboro have also pursued unionization, citing similar issues with short staffing and increased health risks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just like many other healthcare workers, employees at the Hillsboro hospital say that the pandemic was the final straw for issues that have been building for years.
Following the increased risk of infection, overtime hours worked and staff burnout, medical professionals are seeking better conditions — whether they can get them at their current workplace or not.
"If you want to recruit and retain, you need to offer compensation and working conditions that are better than what people can find down the road," said Gina Claiborne, an MRI technologist who's worked at the hospital in Hillsboro for 25 years.
She said when she first started, there were more benefits to employment. Annual raises were based on performance evaluations, but budget cuts and the pandemic have gradually put more strain on staff at all levels, without pay increases to compensate them for risking exposure to COVID-19.
Claiborne suggested that nurses seem to be prioritized over other employees. Tuality nurses obtained a 9% raise this year, while all others got less than 2%, she said — figures that the healthcare company has disputed.
Jayesh Palshikar, who has been a nurse at the Hillsboro hospital for 16 years, confirmed he did receive a 9% raise, and that was because he and other nurses in the state are represented by the Oregon Nurses Association, which negotiated the raise in a separate bargaining process. (The Tualatin-based association is also the union in negotiations with Providence Health & Services at St. Vincent Medical Center.)
Palshikar said he used to work at the main OHSU campus in Southwest Portland, where he said managers were much more open and supportive of employees' efforts to organize.
He said ultimately, better conditions for healthcare workers translates to better care for patients.
"We need stability for our patients, coworkers and community," Palshikar said.
He also said that, as someone who has been through union bargaining and mediation processes before, he's thrown his support behind the Tuality workers who are currently bargaining. He said he's seen the toll it takes on his friends and coworkers.
"These people have to volunteer their time to bargain," he said. "No one is paying for it. … The main reason I came out today is that I have friends on this AFSCME council and they are just seeming demoralized."
Monisha Bunday, who works in the Hillsboro emergency room admitting office, also works at the main OHSU campus in Portland. She said the difference in the way staff is treated and supported is "night and day" compared to the Hillsboro location.
She said she was given time off by OHSU administration to help with union negotiations, something that has not been offered to her by Tuality management. She says she gets paid more money to do the same job at OHSU — with fewer hours — than she does at the Hillsboro hospital.
"With how understaffed we are, unionization will help us get the representation and compensation we deserve," Bunday said. "We've been negotiating for months and gotten nowhere."
Bunday added, "I feel like we're being told to just shut up and follow the rules — the rules they make."
She said that Tuality has responded to short-staffing concerns by hiring lesser qualified employees who have less experience and therefore will accept lower pay. She called this a "slap in the face of people who have worked here for so long."
"The least we can do is ask for proper pay, proper breaks and proper staff," Bunday added.
Ted Mueller, communications manager for Tuality Healthcare, said that the organization continues to bargain in good faith. He disputed the characterization that Tuality employees were getting raises of less than 2%.
"Hillsboro Medical Center has proposed a robust pay package that includes a comprehensive compensation system that will provide several pay increases that together are well in excess of what the union seems to have stated," Mueller said in an email. "The full benefit of all components of the compensation system cannot be reduced to a single number, and it is not accurate for the union to claim that HMC's full proposals will provide raises to bargaining unit employees of less than 2%."
Employees like Bunday say they've been met with hostility. She said that when union materials, like flyers and swag bags, were stored in a cupboard at her work station, they were thrown away or "trashed."
Claiborne and Bunday both said Tuality administration has sent out emailed newsletters to all employees that lie about the consequences of joining a union.
One of them, according to Claiborne, said that one drawback of unionization is that if people fail to pay their union dues, they might lose their jobs.
Representatives of AFSCME Local 328, the union representing the OHSU Hillsboro workers, said this is false. Hiring and firing decisions are handled by employers, not unions, though they often represent workers who feel they have been wrongfully terminated.
Mueller elaborated on this communication to employees, saying that it was accurate based on the contract proposed by the union.
"Hillsboro Medical Center accurately communicated that the union is proposing a contract term that would require new employees in the bargaining unit to become dues-paying union members or pay the union an alternative representation fee as a condition of employment, and that covered employees who declined to do either could face termination of employment," Mueller said. "Hillsboro Medical Center respects the right of its employees to choose union membership."
Bunday also said that, before negotiations began in earnest this year, she had managers come up to her and her coworkers saying that unionizing would just create worse relationships between staff and management.
"But we already don't have a good relationship," Bunday said. "That's what we want changed."
The employees also stressed that this isn't just a problem for medically trained staff. Kitchen workers are also understaffed and overworked, straining the non-medical care that patients receive, too.
"If cafeteria staff aren't there, your patients aren't getting fed," Claiborne said. "If there are no imaging specialists, there are no X-rays for your patients."
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