Amid Tensions, OHSU and AFSCME Bargain For A New Contract 

OHSU Center for Health and Healing Building 2 South Waterfront Shutterstock July 25 2020.jpg

Last week, on the same day that Oregon Health & Science University sent employees an email with a link to instructions on how to obtain $7,500 in aid to offset pandemic-related hardships, it was scheduled to meet with its largest union to negotiate very similar issues of proper compensation and support.

But as was reported in Willamette Week, the April 12 email was fake, a phishing test the university set up. Employees who clicked on the link got tips about how to avoid phishing scams instead of information about how to qualify for financial help. 

With union and rank-and-file staffers blasting the phishing exercise online, the episode inflamed tensions between OHSU and employees even as the university and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ Council 75 are bargaining over a new contract that will cover the pay, benefits and working conditions of about 7,500 employees. 

The incident left OHSU scrambling to apologize, and provided fodder for the union’s negotiating team to press OHSU to take more steps to address its “toxic culture.” 

The union represents most classified staff at the hospital, such as nursing assistants, housekeepers, and food service workers. Overall, OHSU has more than 19,000 employees. The existing 176-page AFSCME contract expires June 30, and bargaining has been under way for five weeks. Negotiations are not public meetings, but the union has provided regular updates on its blog and OHSU has given updates on its site.

OHSU’s employee relations have been under increasing scrutiny. An outside report commissioned by the university and released in December found that OHSU failed to support principles of diversity, inclusion and equity, and didn’t support people coming forward with allegations of misconduct.

That same month, a class-action lawsuit filed by two attorneys alleged racial hostility and disproportionate discipline for employees of color. 

The union’s bargaining team, in a statement to The Lund Report, alluded to some of those troubles – and stressed the need to address them.

“Our bargaining team is proud of the proposals we have put forward to improve our members’ lives in the wake of the pandemic; OHSU’s pervasive culture of sexual harassment, racism and bullying and the rising cost of living,” the union’s bargaining team statement said. “We have proposed significant accountability and reporting mechanisms, paid family leave and improved health-insurance coverage, and we have more improvements on the way.”

AFSCME officials criticized OHSU, citing a lack of positive proposals.

“On the opposite side of the table, OHSU has not made a single proposal to improve our members' lives, address OHSU’s toxic culture or improve staffing. In fact, its most significant proposal would reduce our members' rights to file a grievance.”

However, Regina Lagging, OHSU’s director of labor relations, said in an April 14 email the employer is committed to a productive bargaining process.

“OHSU deeply values its members, and appreciates the time and effort that has gone into this bargaining session,” Lagging said in a statement. “We are dedicated to bargaining toward our shared goals of a safe, healthy and respectful working environment, which is why we’ve proposed, for example, more equitable process for vacation time, structured opportunities for overtime, and continued underwriting of AFSCME’s hardship fund.”

OHSU said its Tuesday bargaining session focused on diversity, equity and inclusion-related topics.

Other issues they are negotiating incude employee shift-trading, the collection of demographic data for accountability purposes; a new contract article for workplace safety from harassment, discrimination and violence; and a new provision protecting employees regarding their immigration status.

Bargaining continues Tuesday, April 19.

Meanwhile, university leadership is publicly sounding the alarm over increased labor costs and losses from the cancellation of elective surgeries. 

On April 13, in an unusual move, the university posted a statement online saying the university experienced a $20 million loss in February, putting the hospital’s year-to-date operating losses at $61 million.

That’s $69 million below the seasonally-adjusted budget and $102 million worse than the first eight months of the last fiscal year, according to OHSU, which posted a video to illustrate its report.  

“I am extremely grateful for everything all of our members have done, and continue to do, to help support OHSU and the people of Oregon,” the university’s President Danny Jacobs, said in a statement. “After more than two years of managing through a global pandemic and other severe challenges, OHSU is no stranger to uncertainty. We have demonstrated an ability to pivot, reinvent and repurpose countless times to support our people and our missions.”

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.

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