June 8, 2022

Providence Nurses Vote to Strike in Oregon

Providence Nurses Vote to Strike in Oregon

Image via Oregon Nurses Association 

Nurses at St. Vincent Medical Center in Oregon have overwhelmingly voted to strike, citing problems with staffing levels, working conditions, and pay. The Oregon Nurses Association (ONA), which represents the hospital's 1,600 nurses, has been in negotiations with the hospital for over a year without reaching an agreement. Their contract expired in December 2021 with no resolution between the hospital and the nurse's union.

Nurses cite pay and safety concerns

"Providence has been unsafe for about a year and a half," said Heather Dodson, BSN, RN, CDN, a dialysis nurse at St. Vincent. Heather recently transferred from Providence Portland Medical Center, St. Vincent's sister hospital. "Nurses are burning out; we don't have enough people to staff the units and you don't get breaks."

Dodson noted that patient safety is a severe concern and expressed problems with low pay and poor benefits, despite St. Vincent being one of the most profitable hospitals in Oregon. Dodson claimed that, despite being an organization with a faith-based, charitable mission, the amount of money Providence has invested in the community in recent years had decreased substantially.

"The hospital claims they need to take salary and benefits away from nurses to give more to the community," Dodson lamented, "but they are not doing that."

Oregon Nurses Association's stance on the strike

The ONA has been bargaining with Providence for nearly a year and a half without reaching an agreement. 

Kevyn Paul, registered nurse and chair of ONA's Labor Cabinet, says that the decision to strike came from a need to stand up for nurses' rights and protest Providence's unfair labor practices. According to Paul, nurses have been trying to find common ground with the company, but Providence has refused to compromise. The strike is a way for nurses to make their voices heard and ensure that their patients receive the best possible care.

John Smeltzer, ONA's executive committee president at Providence St. Vincent, said that the vote to strike was taken in order to defend nurses' rights to speak up and improve patient safety. He noted that Providence is facing a staffing crisis and that nurses have been sacrificing their own health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Smeltzer called on Providence to make basic care improvements, safe nurse staffing, better working conditions, and a fair contract a priority.

If the strike commences at St. Vincent Medical Center, it would be the first time Providence nurses have gone on strike in Oregon. The ONA represents around 4,000 nurses at ten different Providence facilities, and contracts have expired at many of these hospitals. The last time any ONA-represented nurses went on strike was in 2001 at Oregon Health & Science University. If this strike goes through, it could set a precedent for future strikes at other Providence hospitals.

St. Vincent's reaction to the vote

Responding to the news of a strike, Gary Walker, Providence St. Vincent's spokesman, said that the hospital has tried to negotiate constructively with ONA in order to deliver more comprehensive pay and benefits. He stated that ONA's latest move is simply “just the latest attempt to delay meaningful discussion." Walker believes the action taken by ONA prevents nurses from "receiving the substantial pay raises and expanded benefits they deserve." He urges them to continue talking so that they can reach a mutually agreeable resolution.

Providence St. Vincent's chief executive officer, Jennifer Burrows, recognizes that the hospital has lagged behind other local hospitals regarding nurse pay and benefits. This lack of improvement in compensation is due to a four-year contract that locked in relatively low annual increases before the pandemic drove up wages.

Burrows explains that the Providence Health & Services network, of which the hospital is a part, needs to balance competing priorities of providing competitive pay and benefits for staff against its mission of providing medical care to the public at a reasonable cost. The current offer from hospital leadership is a 9.5% pay increase this year, followed by a 3% increase next year and 2.5% in 2024. However, this is not enough for the Oregon Nurses Association, which maintains that because St. Vincent is one of the region's top trauma centers and one of Oregon’s most profitable hospitals, Providence needs to do more.

Strike Details

Although the union representing the nurses at St. Vincent Medical Center in Oregon has voted to strike, they have not set a specific date. According to ONA spokesperson Kevin Mealy, the strike could go forward at any time. The union has said that it will provide management with ten days' notice before the strike begins in order to allow them time to stop admissions and make arrangements for patient transfers.

Two negotiation sessions between ONA and hospital management occurred on May 10th and May 23rd. The next key date in negotiations is June 20, when ONA nurses will begin voting on whether to accept a tentative agreement.

With a marginal increase in pay and little improvement in health insurance built into the contract offer, Heather Dodson doesn't think the nurses will accept the hospital's proposal. If the ONA nurses reject the agreement and take action on their vote to strike, it could significantly impact patient care at the hospital. Dodson explained, "the hospital sent out an e-mail saying 'we've got this great contract, and we know you guys will vote for it but nobody from the ONA has said that."

A mother-baby unit nurse at St. Vincent contended, "The research that ONA has done regarding pay, health insurance, and PTO puts us at the bottom of the scale in all areas." The nurse wanted to remain anonymous but noted she has 16 years of tenure at St. Vincent and 31 years of experience as a nurse. She expressed disappointment with unsafe staffing levels and turnover.

"It's insulting; it's maddening," she said. "Better pay, better benefits, and safe staffing make for happy nurses. If Providence can't provide that, then I want to strike."


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