Eugene hospital workers seek union

Frontline workers, from housekeepers to certified nursing assistants, at PeaceHealth’s Sacred Heart hospitals in Springfield and Eugene are trying to unionize to improve staffing and boost their wages and benefits.

Seeking a stronger, united voice, frontline workers last week filed a petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board. It contained signatures from 65 percent of the group’s 1,000 employees, said Anna Blackman, a certified nursing assistant at Sacred Heart and member of the union organizing committee.

“We believe (support) will be even higher when we come to vote,” she said, adding that the date of the secret-ballot election for workers to decide whether to unionize has not been set yet.

An organizing committee of about 100 employees has been working for the past year to have the larger group of workers be represented by SEIU Local 49, Blackman said.

“We have been voicing to management for years that we need some improvements, and we felt like we needed a united voice to be able to make some progress,” she said.

SEIU Local 49 is part of the largest health care union in the United States. It represents 10,000 workers in Oregon and Washington, including 340 employees, such as food service workers, emergency room technicians and others, at McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center in Springfield.

Better wages sought

McKenzie-Willamette is owned by Community Health Systems, a for-profit, publicly traded company headquartered near Nashville, Tenn.

The PeaceHealth organizing effort comes at a time of labor tension at Sacred Heart hospitals at RiverBend in Springfield and University District, near the University of Oregon campus in Eugene.

About 1,300 PeaceHealth nurses represented by the Oregon Nurses Association union launched a campaign last year to lobby for safer staffing at Sacred Heart. A group of 37 hospitalists — doctors who provide around-the-clock care at Sacred Heart — formed a union in October, saying they want to more effectively advocate for patient care. The hospitalists believe theirs is the first union of its kind in the United States.

In an email this week, Rand O’Leary, chief administrative officer at Sacred Heart Medical Center, said the hospital supports the right of workers to seek third-party representation, but prefers “a relationship where issues of importance can be directly addressed.”

“Sacred Heart’s management team has been listening to caregivers and actively working to address their concerns, in many cases with the caregivers’ involvement,” O’Leary said. “Weekly rounding in our hospitals, town hall forums open to all shifts, caregiver forums ... and executive team attendance at monthly departmental staff meetings are among the many mechanisms we have in place to solicit real-time feedback from caregivers about what they need to be successful in the important work they do.”

PeaceHealth is a three-state, nonprofit Catholic hospital system based in Vancouver, Wash., with 5,900 full- and part-time workers in Lane County, where it is the dominant health care provider.

Last week, the frontline workers delivered a letter explaining to PeaceHealth executives the reasons for seeking to unionize.

Because of short staffing “it is getting harder and harder to do our job and do right by our patients,” the letter said.

Blackman said when she started as a CNA at Sacred Heart 9½ years ago, she was responsible for six patients per day shift. Now she is routinely responsible for nine to 12 patients, Blackman said.

“I’ve had a few shifts where I’ve had 18 patients,” she said.

Plus, patients tend to be sicker and stay longer in the hospital, compared with a decade ago, Blackman said.

She said she isn’t sure why that is, but the aging population, health care reform, which has provided health insurance to patients who didn’t have it before, and Sacred Heart’s role as a regional hospital that draws difficult cases, all could be factors.

The unions representing nurses and hospitalists wrote letters in support of the organizing effort of frontline workers.

The hospitalists’ letter said they unionized in the face of PeaceHealth trying to contract out their jobs.

“We went from being viewed as disposable to being immovable,” the hospitalists’ letter said. “With the support of those we work with, we now have a permanent place in this hospital. Unionizing has given us a strong and effective voice in the care and safety of our patients. It has given us rights under the law that we did not have as individuals..”

The frontline workers’ letter to PeaceHealth administrators also stated that workers’ wages “have not kept up with the cost of living while our healthcare costs have skyrocketed.”

A starting CNA working on Blackman’s floor would make $13.31 an hour, while she makes $16.81 an hour after nearly a decade on the job, she said.

Some departments have gone for years without any raise, Blackman said.

“There isn’t job security, and talented caregivers don’t stay here because of this lack of security and low wages,” she said.

Health care costs an issue

All PeaceHealth employees, including executives, are compensated using the same formula, which takes into account comparables in different geographic markets, as well as internal equity, O’Leary’s statement said.

“We routinely survey the market to determine where our caregivers fit and make adjustments to maintain a competitive median market position,” the statement said. “This compensation philosophy, along with competitive medical insurance plans, educational opportunities and career growth potential, demonstrates our commitment to our caregivers.”

Rising health care costs also are of grave concern to Blackman and many other employees, she said.

After suffering injuries in a car accident in 2011, Blackman, 35, said she was unable to work for three months.

She said she racked up thousands of dollars in bills for spinal surgery and other medical care at PeaceHealth clinics and hospitals.

Blackman said her own employer sent those bills to collections, which ruined her credit record.

Blackman said she finally got the debts under control after she was able to return to work and received financial help from her parents.

“We feel as health care workers our health care coverage should cover enough that we do not go into debt by getting health care at (the) facility (where) we work,” she said.

Staffing also mentioned

Blackman said workers believe Sacred Heart administrators have the money to improve staffing, they’re just choosing not to.

In late April, PeaceHealth officials announced a system-wide hiring freeze at least until early fall on positions not directly involved in patient care. Meanwhile, a committee will review how to restructure to function more effectively in the post-health-care-reform environment that emphasizes preventive care over hospitalization.

Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend reported profit of $41 million and the Sacred Heart hospital in the University District reported a slight profit in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013, according to financial filings with the state.

“Along with our caregivers, we are committed to the patients and communities we serve, especially with respect to the quality and safety of the care we provide,” O’Leary’s statement said.

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The Register-Guard
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