Nurses Rally At OHSU Amid Stalled Contract Negotiations

Nurses rally at OHSU in October ONA.jpg

Dozens of nurses rallied outside Oregon Health & Science University on Wednesday amid stalled contract negotiations.

The administration and the Oregon Nurses Association, which represents 3,000 nurses at OHSU, have been negotiating since January but have failed to reach an agreement over pay raises, breaks, leave and other terms.

The nurses’ contract expired at the end of June, but was extended through August. Now they’re working under the same terms but without a contract in place.

“It’s frustrating,” said Amanda Elegant, a floating acute care nurse who attended the rally. “We’re the ones up here working on the frontline, and it's just really frustrating that they can’t meet us where we need to be on the contract.”

The rally, which took place on the Marquam Hill campus in Southwest Portland, was the second staged by the union in a month and came on the same day that the two sides had another online bargaining session. They met weekly for about three months, paused the negotiations because of the pandemic and are now negotiating about every two weeks, said Kevin Mealy, spokesman for the nurses union.

“It is unusual to have negotiations run this long,” Mealy said. “Now isn’t the time to have frontline workers worried about if they’re going to be able to take time off if they get sick or if they’re going to have PPE tomorrow. We want to have them focused on their patients now more than ever.“

OHSU said in a statement that the administration values its nurses.

“We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively to reach an agreement that provides competitive, comprehensive compensation in recognition of their hard work,” the statement said.

“Some great progress has been made in our negotiations to date; however we have not yet reached agreement on economics or staffing issues.”

The negotiations come during a rocky financial year for OHSU, which saw revenues plunge from the suspension of non-elective procedures after the pandemic hit. The university cut salaries of 4,500 faculty and nonunion staff by 10 percent but this month the board agreed to reinstate those in light of its rosier financial outlook.

“OHSU is certainly pointing out that they had lost money during COVID,” Mealy said. “We’re pointing out that they’re coming off two of the most profitable years in Oregon hospital history and that they haven’t necessarily lost money. They’ve just made less than they expected.”

OHSU has experienced more than a decade of increasing profits and a swelling investment portfolios. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2019, it reported a record profit of $175 million on revenue of $3.2 billion. For the fiscal year that ended this past June 30, it essentially broke even, with a loss of $28 million on revenues of $3.4 billion. It expects a loss of $55 million on revenues of $3.4 billion for the current fiscal year. OSHU’s investments have grown with the long stock market rally. The portfolio of OHSU and its foundation stood at $2.9 billion as of August.

But the pay and benefits for a large nursing staff are costly.

Under the just-lapsed contract, a nurse with a bachelor’s degree in nursing who has less than a year of experience in the field is paid $1,582 for a 40-hour week and provided pension and health insurance benefits. A top-scale nurse with a bachelor’s degree in nursing and 29 years of experience is paid $2,432 for a 40-hour week, plus benefits.

In the negotiations, the nurses are seeking a cost of living increase and extra nurses to cover state-mandated breaks. They want the contract to include guaranteed paid leave for COVID-19 illness, something that OHSU has granted employees this year. They also want enough personal protective gear so that nurses aren’t wearing a mask intended for single patient use throughout the day.

“I wear my surgical mask somewhere between six and 12 hours a day depending if it gets soiled, instead of one for every time I walk into a room,” Elegant said. “We want a commitment that when there are sufficient stocks we can go back to following what the manufacturers recommend.”

The nurses also want a permanent pandemic task force written into their contact. One was formed earlier this year but it’s due to be disbanded at the end of the year, Mealy said.

“We know that COVID-19 isn’t going to be the last infectious disease we face in health care,” Mealy said.

The nurses hope the two sides can agree to terms soon. OHSU said in its statement that the next step could be mediation.

“Under Oregon law for public organizations like OHSU, if the parties cannot reach agreement on their own, a mediator is the next step,” OHSU said in the statement. “ONA has expressed interest in avoiding mediation, and OHSU is willing to continue working without a mediator as long as we continue to make progress.”

Mealy said the union is considering future actions and that mediation is a possibility but he said it will mean spending even more time getting everyone up to speed.

Christian Wihtol contributed to this report.

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.

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