Nurses at Mid-Columbia Medical Center in Labor Dispute

They've been working without a contract since the end of June. They want the hospital, one of two in The Dalles-Hood River area, to hire more staff.

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Nurses at Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles are pushing for a new contract.

They’ve been working since the end of June without a labor agreement amid stalled negotiations. Last week, they tried to move the conversation forward by handing the hospital’s chief executive, Dennis Knox, a petition that asked him and the hospital’s board of trustees to sit down with nurses and discuss how to improve patient care and staffing shortages.

The nurses union says the hospital has lost 30 percent of its nursing staff in the past three years. As a result, said Kevin Mealy, spokesman for the Oregon Nurses Association which represents the staff, nurses have been forced to work variable shifts.

“As more health care providers leave The Dalles, Mid-Columbia’s executives have forced local nurses to take on more shifts and work longer hours,” Mealy said, “including working risky variable shifts that switch nurses between day and night shifts repeatedly within the same week.”

Studies show that long hours and varied shifts increase mistakes, force patients to wait longer and harm the health of the provider.

The two sides have held five negotiating rounds with another planned for this week. Mealy said the hospital has not responded to the nurses’ demands by offering any “significant” proposals.

The hospital’s head of nursing, Don Wenzler, released a statement, saying the hospital is working towards an agreement:

"Mid-Columbia Medical Center has been bargaining in good faith since May 14th and will continue to work towards an agreement both parties can accept,” the statement said. “The contract did expire on June 30th. We will continue to discuss issues and demonstrate good faith efforts. At Mid-Columbia Medical Center we value our nursing staff as well as all our employees, providers, and volunteers. Patient care, safety and satisfaction are at the center of all we do."

There are more than 160 nurses at the hospital, which opened in 1901 and was on the cutting edge of offering so-called patient-centered care that focuses on the whole person and involves them in decisions. The hospital suffered some financial woes in 2012 and 2013, with a rise in uncompensated care and a sharp drop in operating and total margins, according to data from the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. The hospital also saw a dip in gross and net patient revenue last year, along with a drop in operating costs and staff salaries.

The nurses say they stepped up in lean years and that now the hospital is making a profit.

“When times were tough, nurses sacrificed to keep our community hospital afloat,” said nurse Kathy O’Meara. “Now that Mid-Columbia is profitable again, we’re asking hospital executives to reinvest in the equipment, facilities and staff our patients need.”

The hospital, which dates to 1901, competes with Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital in Hood River. Mealy said the nursing salaries at Mid-Columbia lag those at Providence by 8 percent. Both facilities are represented by the same union.

“The hospital is not competitive,” Mealy said of Mid-Columbia.

Reach Lynne Terry at [email protected].