Medical Techs Strike At St. Charles Hospitals In Central Oregon

St. Charles Health System Bend.JPG

Some 150 medical technicians went on strike Thursday morning at the St. Charles hospital system in Central Oregon, capping months of friction between the workers and the nonprofit system’s administrators over contract negotiations.

Bitter labor contract fights, including strike threats, are nothing new to hospitals in Oregon. But the sides typically settle before workers take the drastic step of walking out. Depending on the work group involved, a strike can be crippling to a hospital. In this case, St. Charles says a strike will damage not only the hospital’s finances, but the communities the hospital system serves.

The workers – including X-ray, CT, nuclear and surgical technicians plus respiratory therapists – voted in September 2019 to unionize. But attempts to secure a contract for the roughly 154-person work unit have dragged on. The union says St. Charles, with hospitals in Bend, Madras, Redmond and Prineville, has been slow to discuss terms. The health system says the union failed to give the legally required 30-day warning of the strike, and that the sides might be able to come to terms with further mediation. It also asserts the sides have made progress, tentatively agreeing to pay scales.

St. Charles has even taken the extraordinary step of trying to get federal and state judges to bar the workers from going on strike, but has had no success in court thus far.

St. Charles is the dominant provider in Central Oregon. In its lawsuit against the union -- the Oregon Federation of Nursing and Health Professionals -- says the strike “threatens the public health and safety of the community.” The strike would cause St. Charles “substantial harm” because the organization has been financially hammered by the COVID-19 crisis and there is a “national shortage of replacement caregivers” to bring in during the strike, the health system said.

The union failed to give the required 30-day strike notice, instead giving only 10 days, and there is no time to find, train and bring in replacement workers during the strike, said Rebecca Berry, St. Charles vice president for human resources, in a filings in U.S. District Court in Eugene and in Deschutes County Circuit Court.

St. Charles’ main hospital, in Bend, is consistently “at or near capacity” and has a backlog of more than 1,000 surgical and procedural cases, Berry wrote.

The union opposes St. Charles’ bid for an injunction, saying federal law for many decades has made it clear that the National Labor Relations Board, not federal judges, is the main arbiter in these types of cases. In court filings, the union also said it has repeatedly sought negotiation sessions with the health care system, which responded by stalling and rebuffing the union.

St. Charles said it has filed an unfair labor practice with the labor board, but doesn’t expect a ruling before the strike date. “If the strike proceeds as scheduled, substantial harm will be done, and that harm cannot be remedied by a (labor) board decision in favor of” St. Charles, the health system said in the federal court filings.

The judges have so far taken no action on the health system’s injunction request.

Union members said they are reluctant to strike.

“The hospital is forcing a strike that does not need to happen,” DeeDee Schumacher, a 40-year employee at St. Charles, said in a news release. “Since St. Charles has been unwilling to show us the basic respect we deserve, we have no other choice. By going on strike we remind the hospital that we matter.”

The union is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

The hospital system had said it would keep negotiating if the workers revoke the strike notice.

“We simply don’t have the resources to focus on bargaining a new contract while we are actively preparing for a strike of our technical workforce,” Aaron Adams, president of St. Charles, said in a new release. “Our top priority must be ensuring we have replacement workers here to care for our community.”

The health care system said in the news release that the timing of the strike was “particularly challenging as St. Charles continues to suffer incredible financial losses due to COVID-19. The health system ended 2020 about $21 million below its financial targets even after Cares Act relief funding – mostly because of extended periods of time where surgeries were canceled due to state restrictions or the high volume of COVID-19 patients. St. Charles is experiencing a difficult start to 2021 as well after posting an operating loss of $4.9 million in the month of January.”

Full financials from St. Charles were not immediately available. The system last September said that it lost money in the first quarter of 2020, but was expecting a modest profit margin of 3%-7% for the year. The system’s hospitals are moderately profitable most years, according to filings with the Oregon Health Authority. The system had an investment portfolio of about half a billion dollars as of its latest tax filing with the Internal Revenue Service.

 “We have put our caregivers and our patients first throughout this pandemic, which has been hard on us financially. It is unfortunate that (union) is now adding to that financial strain,” Adams said.

The health system said two core issues remain on the table: pay and “union security.” Negotiators “have agreed upon wages for the first year of the contract. Under this agreement, the average hourly wage for techs in the bargaining unit will be $41.94 per hour once the contract is ratified. This equates to an annual salary of $87,000 a year for a full-time equivalent position, not including overtime, premium pay, shift differentials and other benefits,” the system said. 

“As for union security, St. Charles has asked for an open shop in order to give its caregivers a choice on whether they are members of the union,” the hospital system said. Under an open shop, represented workers have the option of joining, or not joining, the union and paying dues. “The union has requested a closed shop, meaning all St. Charles technical employees represented by OFNHP could lose their jobs if they decide they do not want to join the union,” the system said.

“We believe in the rights of our caregivers who are interested in union representation to be represented,” Adams said. “But we also believe those who are not interested should have the same right to decline union membership.” 

The health system has about 4,600 workers. These include registered nurses who are represented by the Oregon Nurses Association, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

You can reach Christian Wihtol at [email protected].

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