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Multnomah County Health Care Workers Raise Concerns Of Inequities, Staffing

Two unions representing more than 1,000 health care workers in Oregon’s largest county say employees need better pay and support.
October 11, 2022

Two unions representing more than 1,000 health care workers combined in Multnomah County are raising concerns about the lack of progress in contract negotiations.

The Oregon Nurses Association, which represents about 200 county employees, and the Oregon AFSCME Council 75 say they are highlighting the  need for competitive salaries, adequate compensation and support after experiencing trauma. The AFSCME council represents nearly 3,700 county employees and close to 1,000 of them work in the county’s health department.

The unions are planning an informational picket Tuesday near the county’s Northeast Health Center in Portland. The two unions negotiate contracts separately, but have similar concerns.

Workers need adequate wages to counter the high cost of living in Multnomah County and rising inflation, said Eben L. Pullman, a manager for Oregon AFSCME Council 75.

“The county is struggling from what we understand with recruiting and retaining employees,” Pullman said.

AFSCME represents workers that include physicians, dentists, pharmacists, medical assistants, lab workers and behavioral health workers.

The union is also seeking a trauma leave benefit for employees so they can take time off if they are exposed to a traumatic workplace event. The issue crops up in health care and other settings, like libraries, where patrons have assaulted employees, Pullman said. In clinics, patients and clients have made threats or phoned in threats, Pullman said.

“Unfortunately, it’s becoming very common and we appreciate that this is a very difficult time for the entire community, but workers deserve to have a safe work environment,” Pullman said, adding that trauma leave would allow workers time off to decompress and recenter.

The union is also seeking better pay for employees who use their bilingual skills on the job.

In a statement, Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, a spokesperson for Multnomah County, said: “We continue to work with our union partners and be hopeful for these negotiations and like our represented employees, are working to reach a fair result.”

The nurses union represents about 200 nurses, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and others. They serve in clinics, the jail and other settings.

Kevin Mealy, a spokesperson for the ONA, said staffing continues to be at “the top of the list right now.”“The county is really struggling to attract and retain nurses because the pay isn’t competitive,” Mealy said.

Frontline registered nurses at the county make between $5 to $13 an hour less than registered nurses at Portland-area hospitals, depending on the experience level, Mealy said. For example, a first-year frontline registered nurse at the county makes $39.77 an hour, while a first-year registered nurse at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center makes $44.28 an hour. 

On the high end of the pay scale, a frontline registered nurse with experience makes $51.11 for the county and $64.07 at that hospital.

“They don’t pay the positions enough to attract them,” Mealy said. “It’s just an open spot on a job site at this point because they can’t get people in the door.”

Like AFSCME, the nurses union said employees need support as they face threats in the workplace. 

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.