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Nurses At A Providence Hospital Plan To Vote For Possible Strike

The vote would give nurses at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center the ability to go on strike but not require it.
Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in southwest Portland. | M.O. STEVENS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
April 19, 2022

Nurses at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center on Tuesday launched a vote that would authorize an unfair labor practice strike against the Portland hospital. 

The upcoming vote starts today and ends May 3. If successful, it would authorize Oregon Nurses Association leaders to call a strike in protest of alleged unfair labor practices. The vote would not guarantee a strike and would put in place a 10-day notice before a walkout could start. That notice in turn, would give the nurses union another tool at its disposal as it negotiates a contract with Providence.

Providence, for its part, said in a statement it has asked a federal mediator to help with negotiations and it is ready to schedule more dates or negotiations.

“Strikes don’t settle contracts; getting together and discussing the issues face-to-face does,” Providence spokesman Gary Walker said in a statement.

The nurses union represents 1,600 nurses at Providence St. Vincent and more than 4,000 frontline nurses across the entire Providence system in Oregon. Oregon has put hundreds of millions in federal COVID-19 relief money toward out-of-state support staffers to hospitals statewide, including Providence facilities. 

The nurses union has filed unfair labor practices charges against Providence for a slew of issues. Allegations include illegal attempts to discriminate, threaten and retaliate against nurses who engage in protected union activity and exercise their rights to speak up for patient and caregiver safety, the union said.

The nurses union also says Providence has refused to provide critical safety information about emergency department staffing in negotiations. 

“Nurses are affirming our rights to speak up and advocate for our patients and coworkers to make sure work is safe for nurses and patients. Instead of interfering with nurses’ rights, Providence should be working with us to raise staffing standards, improve patient care, make health care more affordable and retain the frontline nurses and health professionals our community counts on,” said John Smeltzer, a registered nurse and ONA Executive Committee President at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. “Our patients and staff deserve better.”

In addition to the strike authorization vote, ONA nurses are pushing for what they say are basic patient and nurse safety improvements in contract negotiations at multiple Providence facilities. ONA nurses have volunteered to meet with paid Providence managers 33 times over the last six months to bargain multiple contracts within the Providence Oregon System, union officials said.

In an interview, Sara Kee, a registered nurse in the hospital’s cardiology unit, said  Providence has been “pressuring nurses and not allowing the union to have contact with us this last year.” For example, union representatives were not allowed in the hospital, even in break rooms. They’ve also been followed and “sort of tracked” when they’ve been in the hospital,” Kee said in an interview with The Lund Report.

“People have seen the administration taking down fliers on ONA boards,” Kee said.

Turnover has been high and nurses have left Providence for other better opportunities, Kee and union officials said.

After a pandemic and staff shortages, nurses need more support, Kee said.

“We really are looking for security and a promise from the administration that they’re going to be with us in providing that personal protective equipment and the staff we need,” Kee said.

The non-profit health care system and union have been in negotiations since October 2021 and bargained in 15 sessions.

Providence Proposal

Providence spokesman Gary Walker said the company has asked for “multiple additional dates from ONA in order to get a deal done – and to get a 9.5% increase into the paychecks of our represented nurses – but ONA has not been able to get additional sessions on the calendar,” aside from one set for April 28.

Here's what Providence says it is offering: 

  • 9.5% total in raises for each registered nurse during the first year of the contract. 
  • A 3% raise in the second year and 2.5% in the third year.  That’s a 15% increase in base wages during a three-year period, according to the health system.
  • The proposal would give new nurses a starting wage of $43.09 an hour after their residency. The hospital proposal also includes increases for different types of duty, such as night and weekend shifts. 

Providence officials denied engaging in unfair labor practices. In a statement, Providence said there is a disagreement about whether nurses union representatives can interact with staff while working at nursing stations.

“Providence has maintained that the nursing stations are work areas and union representatives do not have the right to disturb nurses at that time by engaging in lengthy discussions or distributing ONA fliers,” Providence said.

The hospital’s statement added: “We do not ‘spy’ on our nurses and we do not regulate what they talk about on their personal time.”

Walker said Providence has requested a federal mediator to bridge the gap. Federal mediators are a neutral third party to help during stalled labor talks.

“We believe we’ve made significant progress in the contract talks at Providence St. Vincent, and had good dialog at the table,” Walker said. “We believe our represented nurses really want to come to an agreement as quickly as possible. Providence believes we need to do all we can to facilitate getting more dates on the calendar for the conversations that will get us to a deal.”

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