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Portland-area lawmakers join health care employees; both sides have been in contract negotiations for more than a year.

Providence Milwaukie Hospital workers line up along 32nd Avenue to protest what they say has been unfairly low pay and benefits.Providence Milwaukie Hospital employees shined a light on what they say are low wages and unaffordable health care benefits by picketing this month in front of the hospital's buildings.

After more than a year of negotiations, workers in a newly formed union rallied to bring attention to the time it's taken to come to an agreement with hospital management on the union's first contract. Rallies drew dozens of certified nursing assistants, dietary assistants, environmental service workers and other health care staff at the hospital, along with state representatives who stopped by to show their support.

State Rep. Rob Nosse, State Sen. Shemia Fagan, Providence employee Stephanie Shufelt and State Rep. Andrea Salinas attend the rally."We're coming together to make sure that COURTESY PHOTO - SEIU Local 49 President Meg Niemi joins Stephanie Shufelt, contract bargaining team member and Emergency Department registrar at Providence Milwaukie Hospital, at a rally this month.Providence is a great place to work and receive care," said Michelle Hitchcock, the hospital's lead scheduler and a member of the union bargaining team. "It's time for Providence to hear our concerns. We will not stop until we get a fair contract that makes patients and staff a priority."

Providence management, for its part, says it's committed to ensuring that employee rights related to labor organizing are respected.

"Providence has a long history of working together with unions that caregivers have chosen to represent them," said Providence spokesperson Gary Walker. "It is not uncommon for first contracts to take more than a year to negotiate, especially for bargaining units like this one where there are a number of different job classifications that have different wage rates and working conditions. We have an obligation to bargain in good faith and we work hard to meet that obligation."

Wade Johnson, an SEIU bargaining team member and an employee at the hospital, attends the Jan. 10 rally.Since their membership in SEIU Local 49 was certified in June 2018, workers have been in contract negotiations with the hospital on an agreement that they say addresses issues that also impact patients and local families. Since last January, bargaining teams representing Providence Milwaukie management and union workers have met 15 times for negotiations, most recently on Jan. 7. Dates for two more negotiating sessions were scheduled on Monday, Jan. 27 and Wednesday, Feb. 5.

A Jan. 10 rally came on the heels of the Oregon Employment Department's newly released report showing wage inequality in the state continues to climb. Wages among Oregon's top earners have continued to outpace low- and middle-wage workers during the state's long economic expansion.

"As one of the nation's largest nonprofit health systems, Providence can afford to invest in quality patient care and the staff who deliver that care," said Meg Niemi, president of SEIU Local 49.

Walker said that Providence generally compensates all its employees at the market average.

"In the Portland area, Providence has set a $15 minimum wage for caregivers, unless they are represented by a union and have not negotiated a new wage scale at that level," he said.

Charlene Cox, a cook in the Dietary Services Department at Providence Milwaukie Hospital, rallies for better employee pay and benefits with hospital dishwasher Justin Curtis.Melissa O'Neil, who works in the Environmental Services department at the hospital, has been on the frontlines of negotiations with the hospital. She's full-time and says it's unfair that she's one of the higher paid unionized workers, earning $35,000 annually, when public records show that several Providence executives have had annual salaries over $1 million.

"We do to this work because we want patients to get the quality care they need," O'Neil said. "When we're understaffed and overworked, it can threaten our safety and the safety of our patients. It can lead to injuries and missed work. That, combined with low wages and unaffordable health benefits, leaves us feeling frustrated and vulnerable. Providence can do better than this."

The latest available Form 990, an annual report that certain federally tax-exempt organizations must file with the IRS, showed that in 2017, Providence President Mike Butler made over $2.5 million and several other administrators made over $1 million that year.

"Providence sets market-competitive salaries for its CEO and senior executives in order to attract and retain the best talent," Walker said.

Meanwhile, many unionized workers at the hospital say that they're in debt to their employer due to inadequate health benefits. Kirsten Isaacson of SEIU Local 49 said many Providence workers pay over $1,000 in annual premiums alone for their family health plans.

"Many Providence workers pay a 20% coinsurance, after deductible for things like X-rays and lab work," Isaacson said. "When you combine utilization expenses like copays and coinsurances with premiums, workers could hit an annual max out-of-pocket of $6,600 for a family."

Walker said Providence offers a premium-free health plan option for employees working more than 30 hours a week. Basic family health plan coverage starts at $68/month for a full-time employees.

"At Providence, we offer and provide benefits that help us care for our employees and their families by supporting their wellness, and providing tools and resources that promote financial security and professional growth," Walker said. "Providence also provides caregivers an opportunity to earn an annual health incentive of up to $700 per individual or up to $1,400 per family to cover health-related expenses."

Walker said that a Providence employee with a household income of up to $31,225 for a single person or $64,375 for a family of four receives free medical insurance and an additional $450 to be used towards their other health expenses. Collections are used as a last resort, he said, after options for financial assistance, such as interest-free payment plans and waived insurance premiums for eligible employees, are discussed with patients before and after services.

"Providence strives to make the billing and payment process as patient-centered and compassionate as possible, and is committed to working with all our patients in need of financial assistance at any point in their care journey," he said.

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