Hundreds Of McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center Employees Poised To Strike

McKenzie Willamette Medical Center by Christian Wihtol.jpg

About half of the employees at  McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center in Springfield have voted to strike.

The Service Employees International Union Local 49 announced Tuesday that a majority of its 400 represented workers voted Monday to walk out amid stalled negotiations for a new contract. The union said they’re unhappy about staffing and compensation issues. 

Negotiators with the union and hospital were meeting Tuesday morning in an effort to make progress on a three-year contract for the hospital support staff, SEIU Local 49 spokeswoman Rae Dunnaville said.

But the vote gives SEIU the right to call a strike if negotiators decide they can't make any progress in talks for a new three-year contract. The previous contract expired last month.

The union accused the hospital of refusing to provide it with information during negotiations and interfering with workers' rights.

Workers "are reporting a lot of understaffing in their departments," Dunnaville said. "This is something we've been trying to address for a while." She declined to say how many union-represented workers voted to authorize a strike, but called the margin “overwhelming.”

A McKenzie-Willamette spokeswoman declined to comment, citing ongoing negotiations with the union.

SEIU Local 49 covers maintenance, service and technical support workers at McKenzie-Willamette, which spans from surgical technicians, respiratory therapists and certified nursing assistants to dietary workers and housekeepers. The hospital employs about 975 people.

McKenzie-Willamette, owned by Tennessee-based Quorum Health Corp., is one of just two for-profit hospitals in Oregon. And it has been one of the state's most profitable hospitals for years, raking in average annual profits of nearly $45 million over the past five years while many of its nonprofit competitors have struggled to post modest profits.

SEIU and the Oregon Nurses Association union say the 113-bed hospital has notched those profits in part by keeping departments understaffed. The state last year filed a lengthy complaint outlining 20 state nurse staffing rule violations at the hospital between 2016 and early 2018, with many of the violations occurring multiple times. The complaint said the hospital failed to develop and implement proper nurse staffing plans in its women’s health unit, cardiovascular intensive care unit, emergency department, short-stay unit, endoscopy unit and pre-anesthesia testing unit.

The hospital late last year outlined a series of corrective steps it planned to take in a 12-page response submitted to the Oregon Health Authority, including quarterly staffing meetings and compliance audits.

The current SEIU Local 49 deadlock comes after it says hospital negotiators recently presented a plan to raise employee health care premiums by more than 20 percent.

SEIU last month reached a contract agreement for workers at PeaceHealth hospitals in Eugene and Springfield, which the union says granted considerable pay and insurance concessions. The agreement was reached just hours before a strike was set to begin.

That contract only underscored the gulf between working conditions at PeaceHealth and McKenzie-Willamette, the union said Tuesday.

“Hospital workers are fighting to make sure healthcare jobs in Lane County are good jobs,” Steven Ward, a director at SEIU Local 49, said in a statement. “Hospitals are the backbone of the community, and they should prioritize people and community over profits. McKenzie-Willamette is a very successful and profitable hospital, and the frontline workers who provide care should not be struggling to care for their basic needs.” 

The sides have been negotiating since May.

You can reach Elon Glucklich at [email protected].

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