Largest Labor Union At OHSU Authorizes Strike Over Contract Negotiations

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

After six months of talks, Oregon Health & Science University and its biggest labor union — AFSCME Local 328 — remain apart on key economic issues, including wage increases, overtime rates and sick time. Workers last week upped the ante when they voted to authorize a strike.

Neither side is eager for a walkout, and strike authorizations are a common tactic during negotiations. Legally, a number of additional steps are required before the 7,419 AFSCME-represented workers could go on strike.

The stakes are high. OHSU has said it is striving in the current fiscal year, which started July 1, just to break even on its operating budget. The university reported a $77 million operating loss last fiscal year and says it is increasing spending this fiscal year to pay higher wages and add hundreds of workers.

Meanwhile, employees represented by AFSCME are pressing for sizable pay hikes at a time when the economic landscape is in their favor: Workers are in short supply in the health care field and many other sectors.

The AFSCME-represented workers are in a range of jobs, from housekeepers and payroll clerks to physical therapists and computer systems workers. Their pay ranges from about $16 an hour for a custodian to as much as $190,000 for a top computer systems developer.

The new contract — to replace the one that lapsed in June — would run for three years. The union seeks annual across-the-board pay increases of 8%, 7% and 7%, for a total of 22 percentage points over the three years. It also wants 20 more hours of paid sick leave, 20 hours of paid bereavement, one new floating holidays and mandatory overtime to be paid at double time instead of the current time and a half, according to AFSCME’s blog, which provides weekly updates. In addition to the across-the-board pay increases, many workers would also be eligible for so-called “progression increases” as they advance in seniority in their job classification.

By contrast, OHSU is offering across-the-board annual increases of 5%, 3.5% and 3%, for a total of 11.5 percentage points, according to an OHSU post. OHSU is offering no increase in sick leave, 20 hours of paid bereavement, one new holiday and no change in the overtime rate, according to website postings by OHSU and the union.

AFSCME is the biggest union at OHSU, followed by the Oregon Nurses Association, which represents about 3,000 registered nurses and other nurses. Graduate researchers and residents and fellows have also won union representation in the last several years.

In its $4.3 billion budget for the current fiscal year, OHSU set aside money for pay increases for OHSU workers, although it didn’t disclose how much it anticipated spending on the AFSCME-represented group.

The union had started out in the talks seeking pay hikes of 9%, 8% and 8%, but cut that immediately after last week’s strike authorization vote, according to a posting by Jennifer Barker, who is a member of the union negotiating team in charge of communications and a finance and accounting analyst at OHSU.

“We hope that reducing our ask here will encourage OHSU to increase its (across the board pay proposal),” wrote Barker on AFCME’s negotiation blog.

“Our goal is to get our members the best possible contract without needing to strike, and reducing our (pay) proposal slightly is a necessary step toward reaching that goal. We let OHSU know that our proposal tonight was very close to our last, best, final offer,” wrote Barker. In an earlier post, she wrote that her priority was securing “historic across-the-board wage increases that will help our members do more than just get by.”

OHSU administrators this year are focused on hiring more permanent health care staff so the organization can let go of the hundreds of expensive temporary traveler health care workers it has taken on during the pandemic.

OHSU’s goal is eventually to resume posting modest annual operating profit margins.

Pre-COVID, OHSU managed to produce annual operating profits that averaged about 5% a year. But growing labor costs and COVID-related fluctuations in revenues upended that model.

The break-even budget for the current fiscal year seeks to add about 400 full-time-equivalent positions across the institution, taking total budgeted staffing to 17,858 positions.

More than 10,000 OHSU workers are represented by labor unions, with contracts that give workers annual cost of living increases, plus, for many, annual step increases tied to job experience. Non-unionized workers, especially the 2,250 doctors and other faculty, are lobbying for increases too.

The Oregon Nurses Association labor contract runs next June, and it is preparing for negotiations to start in January.

In the health care segment of OHSU, salaries and benefits will rise 11.7%, to $1.2 billion, in the current fiscal year, largely due to a mix of increased hiring and salary and benefit increases, OHSU administrators told the OHSU Board of Directors earlier this summer.

Annual pay increases vary considerably among different worker groups.

OHSU plans a 3.9% pay increase for faculty members this fiscal year, boosting the average salary among faculty in the School of Medicine, the research department and the provost’s office to $197,339, according to the budget.

By contrast, the AFCME House Officers Union, representing residents, interns and fellows, last year secured a total pay increase of 5.5 percentage points over three years ending in 2023. The contract was the new union’s first. It gave a half percent pay raise on signing, followed by 2.5% in each of the next two years.

OHSU and AFSCME Local 328 both say they are continuing to negotiate via a mediator toward a contract.

“OHSU and AFSCME have a long-standing, cooperative relationship,” OHSU said in a statement. “We are hopeful that a strike can be avoided.” 

If the mediation fails, next steps could include formal declarations of impasse, a submission of each side’s final offer, a cooling off period and a 10-day strike notice. Strikes can take many forms, from work stoppages by select work groups that last only a few hours to long job stoppages by the entire represented workforce.

Barker, in a post, said 93% of members voting on the strike authorization voted in favor.

The union doesn’t disclose vote tallies, she said.

Of the 7,419 employees at OHSU represented by the local, 5,896 are dues-paying members, Barker told The Lund Report.

Ony dues-paying members can vote, whether on strike authorization, contract ratification or other issues.

Barker in a post said the contract negotiations have boosted union members. She wrote that this month the local signed up 316 employees.

You can reach Christian Wihtol at [email protected].

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