Nurses at two more Providence-affiliated hospitals in Oregon voted to authorize strikes this week, a move that increases pressure on the state’s largest health care provider to offer better pay and working conditions.
In two separate elections, nurses at Providence Milwaukie Hospital and Providence Willamette Falls Medical Center in Oregon City voted nearly unanimously to authorize strikes against Providence. The votes started May 23 and ended Thursday.
The move follows a May vote in which nurses at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland authorized a strike
In all, the votes allow more than 2,000 nurses in three Portland-area Providence hospitals to go on strike. The votes do not guarantee that there will be a strike, but they do authorize the unions bargaining teams to plan a work stoppage and notify Providence management of imminent strikes.
Nurses at the three hospitals say they do not have adequate support and staffing, with workloads that jeopardize the quality of patient care. The strike votes come after a two-year pandemic that has overwhelmed and exhausted Oregon’s health care workforce, as nurses and other health care providers have exited the field or left hospitals for less-demanding positions
A spokesperson for Providence said the company is disappointed but plans to continue to bargain and reach an agreement.
“While we think it is premature and are disappointed by ONA’s strike authorization votes, we are eager to continue dialogue with ONA as we work to find mutually agreeable solutions,” said Jean Marks, a spokesperson for Providence, in an email. “Since contracts are settled at the bargaining table, we encourage the union to avoid a costly strike for our nurses.”
The Oregon Nurses Association represents the nurses at the hospitals. Nurses at each hospital negotiate separate contracts. Like the strike votes, the decision to go on strike could unfold differently at each hospital. Nurses at one hospital could go on strike, but not necessarily all three.
The nurses union represents 233 nurses at Providence Willamette Falls; 239 nurses working at Providence Milwaukie and more than 1,600 ONA nurses at Providence St. Vincent.
Nurses Speak Out
Nurses participating in the negotiations said there is patient care "crisis” at Providence.
“Every day, nurses are forced to care for twice as many patients as is considered safe,” said Peggy Elia, a registered nurse and president of the union’s executive committee at Providence Milwaukie Hospital, in a statement. “Oregon patients and their families deserve safe, high-quality, affordable and accessible health care.”
In an interview with The Lund Report, Sarah Bea, a registered nurse at the Milwaukie hospital and member of the bargaining team, raised similar concerns. Patients get a lot less one-on-one time and staff shortages make timely responses difficult for needs like when patients need to get to the bathroom quickly or need pain medication, Bea said.
“Every time I come out of a room I see five other call lights going off with people with needs,” Bea said. “It’s just impossible to be everywhere and we don't have enough staff to meet everybody's needs in a timely way.”
A nurse at the Milwaukie hospital for eight years, Bea said nurses have been voicing concerns about safety for years without receiving support.
“At this point, we’re just at a breaking point,” Bea said. “There’s no more that we can do without receiving some resources.”
Bea said management “didn’t have to wait’ for the bargaining table to start hiring more staff.
Virginia Smith, a registered nurse and ONA’s executive committee president at Providence Willamette Falls Medical Center, said in a statement that Providence isn’t taking patient or nurse safety seriously.
“For the last two years, I’ve watched nurses sacrifice our own health and safety for our patients and for Providence during COVID-19,” Smith said. “And for the last six months Providence has forced nurses at my hospital to work without a contract when all we’re asking for are basic safety standards we need to protect our patients, our coworkers and our families. We don’t take this action lightly.”
At this point, nurses have met with Providence managers more than 45 times to discuss issues among the contracts for the three hospitals, the union said.
Those issues include stronger patient safety standards to reduce COVID-19 outbreaks, better nurse staffing, affordable health care benefits and highercompensation to recruit and retain staff, the union said.
The contracts at Providence St. Vincent and Providence Willamette Falls expired in 2021. Providence Milwaukie’s contract expired in May.
Now, nurses are leading meetings to prepare for strikes and planning potential strike dates.
When dates are set, the nurses union will give Providence a 10-day notice of any strike so management has the time to plan for the work stoppage. During that 10-day window, the union could still call off a strike if the two sides reach a contract agreement.
Marks, the Providence spokesperson, said the hospitals have a plan to serve patients in the event of a strike. If there is a strike, negotiations would cease and not resume until it ended, Marks said.
“It’s important to note that if an actual strike is called at any of Providence’s Portland area hospitals, we will turn all of our attention to preparing to serve our patients and return to negotiations after the strike,” Marks said. “Continued access to high-quality care remains our highest priority. We have a comprehensive plan that ensures the delivery of that care to the communities who rely on us, even if nurses choose to walk out. Our hope is that everyone will continue to bargain in good faith. Talking solves more than walking.”
The Oregon Nurses Association represents more than 15,000 nurses and other health workers in the state, including more than 4,000 nurses working at 10 Providence Oregon health care hospitals and clinics.
You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.