Strike looms for Providence nurses in Milwaukie, Oregon City
Nurses at hospitals in Oregon City and Milwaukie are voting through June 2 on whether to strike.
Among the list of contract proposals, 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 nurse staff. Separate statements from hospital administration at Milwaukie and Oregon City said that continued talks would lead to better solutions than potential walkouts.
Providence's Milwaukie and Willamette Falls employees started voting on May 23. If the strikes are approved, Oregon City nurses would join the 1,600 nurses who voted to strike at Providence St. Vincent on May 3.
On June 3, the Oregon Nurses Association's labor cabinet will review the vote results from Milwaukie and Oregon City to determine whether to authorize additional strikes against Providence. Nurses' current contract at Providence Milwaukie is due to expire this month, while the contract at Providence Willamette Falls expired in 2021.
Over 80% of nurses voted to strike at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center after the standard two-week voting period. The union's labor cabinet authorized the strike the following day.
Although nurses have approved it, a strike isn't guaranteed at St. Vincent. Once the Oregon Nurses Association determines that a strike is necessary and calls for one, the union is required to give the hospital a 10-day notice. During that 10-day period, the two sides could potentially come to an agreement and avert the strike — and the hospital can start preparing for it, which would likely entail ceasing admissions and transferring patients.
Providence regional communications director Gary Walker said that if an actual strike is called, Milwaukie and Willamette Falls hospital officials will turn all attention to patients and return to negotiations after the strike.
"Continued access to high-quality care remains our highest priority," Walker said. "We have a comprehensive plan that ensures the delivery of that care to the communities who rely on us, even if nurses choose to walk out. Our hope is that everyone will continue to bargain in good faith."
ONA Communications Director Kevin Mealy said it was the hospital administration officials who have not been bargaining in good faith, not the union members. ONA has filed unfair labor-practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board over Providence's allegedly illegal attempts to discriminate, threaten and retaliate against nurses who engage in protected union activity and exercise their rights to speak up for patient and caregiver safety. In a statement provided by Walker, Providence said it "strongly denies the allegations" of National Labor Relations Act violations.
ONA steward Rebecca Sudduth, who has worked at Providence for over eight years, said hospital staff came into the nurses' break room and periodically threw away the union's flyers.
Mealy said that other examples of Providence managers attempting to intimidate and coerce nurses who choose to exercise their legally protected rights include asking if nurses "need more work" after ONA nurses chose to attend bargaining sessions on their personal time, attempting to discipline nurses for engaging in protected union activity and interfering with workers' discussions about contract negotiations.
Sudduth said she loves the staff and community at Providence 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.
Because the nurses have been working under an expired contract, they are missing benefits they previously had, like the education 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.
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.
ONA's negotiating team members said they've had to schedule bargaining around their work schedules. Sometimes finding a common date that works for everyone is tricky.
"While Oregon's nurses were running into COVID-19 rooms wearing reused PPE we pulled from paper bags, taxpayers handed Providence and other hospitals billions to ensure our hospitals stayed open during the pandemic," said ONA President Lynda Pond, who is a registered nurse. "Providence alone collected nearly $1.3 billion in taxpayer bailouts from the CARES Act to add to its $14 billion in cash and investment revenues."
Pond added that frontline nurses who have invested in Providence with "blood, sweat, tears" are now demanding Providence reinvest in their communities.
"It's time for Providence to listen to nurses and reinvest in patient safety, safe staffing and caregiver retention to improve health care for all Oregonians," Pond said.
A series of bargaining sessions are scheduled. Providence Willamette Falls will bargain with management Wednesday, May 25, and Friday, June 3, while Providence Milwaukie will do the same on Thursday, May 26, and again on June 16 and 23.
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