Workers at McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center in Springfield are striking to protest lack of progress on union contract negotiations and a move by the hospital to outsource about 100 dietary, housekeeping and linen jobs to a Texas-based staffing company.
Workers represented by Service Employees International Union Local 49 are staging a two-day strike starting Tuesday morning, saying the hospital, owned by Tennessee-based Quorum Health Corp., has failed to negotiate fairly over the outsourcing and a new contract to replace the one that expired Sept. 1.
The union represents about 400 front-line workers, including housekeepers, certified nursing assistants, MRI technicians, respiratory therapists and pharmacy technicians.
The impending outsourcing will involve McKenzie-Willamette terminating “nearly 100” housekeeping, dietary and linen department jobs, the union said.
“The biggest issue is the outsourcing,” said Mike Miller, an x-ray tech at the hospital and a member of the union bargaining team. “We’re leery that the hospital is trying to break the union or outsource as many people as they can,” said Miller as he walked the picket line Tuesday morning.
Hospital spokesperson Jana Waterman said McKenzie-Willamette is negotiating on the outsourcing and contract in good faith. She said that 56 of the housekeeping and dietary employees to be outsourced “will be offered employment” by the staffing firm.
The hospital is negotiating with the union about the outsourcing process, “but to date the only alternative offered (by the union) has been not to outsource,” Waterman said.
Workers admit that there is not much the union can do to prevent the outsourcing, and they want stronger language in a new contract to make it more difficult for the hospital to lay off workers when it happens.
Under the expired contract, which remains in effect, the hospital must negotiate with the union over aspects of the outsourcing, but the union can’t halt the hospital’s move.
Miller said he assumed McKenzie-Willamette was pursuing the outsourcing to save money. But he said he can’t be sure because the hospital hasn’t told the union about the pay or benefits the staffing firm is offering.
Relations between the unionized workers and the hospital have long been tense.
In 2019, as a three-year labor contract was expiring, negotiations became sticky and workers overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike. The contract was settled days before the planned strike date.
Now, after months of negotiations, the latest three-year contract expired Sept. 1. Workers want better wages, better staffing and COVID-19 protections, said union spokesperson Rae Dunnaville.
Some of the jobs represented by the union have high wages. For example some radiology, lab and ultrasound techs can be paid about $30-$50 an hour, depending on their level of experience.
But most of the jobs are the lowest-paid at the hospital. These include dietary techs, paid about $15-$22 per hour, depending on experience, housekeeping ($13-$21 per hour) and linen workers ($15-$23 per hour), according to the expired contract.
The union filed an unfair labor practice charge against the hospital because the hospital “unilaterally implemented” the outsourcing, Dunnaville said.
“The hospital is bulldozing ahead with the outsourcing plan. As a result, housekeeping, dietary and linen staff will no longer be employed by McKenzie-Willamette as of October 24,” she said.
“We don't know what that will look like in practice since, well, the hospital didn't bargain in good faith with us over this. We do know that workers will lose their current health care plan because it's for employees-only,” she said.
Waterman said the outsourcing “represents an investment in our patients and employees.”
McKenzie-Willamette has consistently been among the most profitable hospitals in the state, although it has reported losses due to COVID-19.
In the first quarter of this year, the hospital reported a loss of $2.5 million on revenues of $55 million, following a loss of $4.9 million on revenues of $216 million in 2020, according to filings with the Oregon Health Authority. McKenzie-Willamette last year received $4.5 million in federal CARES bailout money.
But profits were strong in previous years. In 2019, the hospital had a profit of $32 million on revenues of $230 million and $42 million on revenues of $228 million.
Given these profit levels, the hospital should be more generous with staff, Dunnaville said.
Waterman said the hospital is prepared for the short strike.
“Patient safety and quality care are of the utmost importance,” she said in an email. “The hospital will implement its contingency operations plan that will limit some services during the strike, including the rescheduling of elective surgeries. Care of patients already in our hospital will not be impacted.”
You can reach Christian Wihtol at [email protected].
Unsettling to see a rise in labor actions when hospitals, clinics and suppliers all over the country are desperate for workers. In this case, it appears the Tennessee for-profit company that owns McKenzie-Willamette can't make do even when profits are solid and covid relief money has been showered on them. They went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year, hired a new CEO, reorganized under a new corporate entity in Delaware, then recently sold off parts to a private equity firm. I guess the only tool left in the toolbox is to squeeze the workers and, thus, the patients.