450 workers vote to unionize at OHSU's Hillsboro hospital
A once-in-a-century pandemic has made the past year a frightening time to work in a hospital.
But Shellie Powers, a patient access representative in the emergency room at the OHSU Health Hillsboro Medical Center, said she's more hopeful than ever that she'll have the support she needs as a frontline healthcare worker going forward.
In January, 450 workers at the downtown Hillsboro hospital, formerly known as Tuality Community Hospital, formed a union under Oregon AFSCME Council 75.
Of 225 mail-in ballots cast, 164 people voted in favor of unionizing.
Powers says she and other union members, including lab technicians, service workers, maintenance staff and pharmacists and others, are advocating for better working conditions as the coronavirus pandemic continues to put hospital workers at risk.
Powers' job requires her to check patients into the emergency room, which has meant coming into direct contact with people who may be sick and contagious. She has worked at the hospital for 10 years.
In 2016, Hillsboro's Tuality Community Hospital became a clinical partner of OHSU, adopting the OHSU name and integrating services with the hospital system.
Powers said it was never a priority to become part of a union at the hospital, but that changed soon after the pandemic, leading her to contact AFSCME, which also represents about 7,000 workers at OHSU's main hospital in Southwest Portland.
"It seemed like they didn't really care much about us or our families," said Powers, a single mother, of the hospital's administrators. "Things got really bad."
She said early in the pandemic, long-running grievances — such as frequent non-negotiable procedural and policy changes — came to a head as she saw the hospital furloughing employees, reducing work hours, changing people's shifts and freezing annual raises.
"At one point, they were saying that we didn't need to wear a mask when we spoke to a patient, because we weren't spending enough time with them face-to-face," Powers said, referring to her department's management.
She said she understood guidance from health officials at the time was often changing, and there were moments when national shortages of personal protective equipment seemed dire, but she didn't feel like management was working actively to provide safe working conditions.
She said it took months for the hospital to install plexiglass barriers at admitting stations, and only recently did the hospital implement a contactless intake system.
"It was really scary. We have direct contact with patients that are pretty much sticking their whole head in our window," Powers said.
In a statement, Kelley Frengle, vice president of human resources at the hospital, said, "Since the start of the pandemic, we have actively evaluated guidance from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), our state and local health departments and quickly implemented PPE policies in line with current guidance from these experts. We track our PPE supply daily and have never reached a point where the recommended PPE was not available to our health care workers."
Powers said when she started talking to people in other departments, she heard similar concerns to the ones she felt.
"It seemed like everybody was frustrated. Everyone was fed up," she said.
Sarah Thompson, an organizer with AFSCME, said when a majority of hospital workers seeking to form a union under Oregon's public employee union law presented hospital management with signed union cards, officials stated the law didn't apply because the hospital was a private entity, even though it operates as a clinical partner of OHSU — a public institution — and shares OHSU's branding.
Thompson said the hospital hired a law firm that specializes in "union avoidance" and scheduled mandatory department meetings aimed at discouraging the union effort. Such mandatory meetings are illegal in the public sector, Thompson noted, although hospital officials argued that they weren't in the public sector.
Hospital workers petitioned the federal National Labor Relations Board with enough supporters to trigger a ballot measure to unionize.
For her part, Frengle said the Hillsboro Medical Center "will work collaboratively with the union as we focus on providing the best quality care to the community of Washington County."
There's a long way to go before contract negotiations begin, Powers said, adding that newly unionized employees have started holding meetings, setting priorities and comparing contracts at hospitals in the area.
She said the formation of the union won't change how she serves patients, because she has always been committed to high-quality service.
"We had no voice," Powers said. "With the union, we have that voice."
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