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Nurses union holds rally pressuring Providence on pay, staffing

Providence defends wages, commitment to fair labor contracts despite nurse shortages. 
Understaffing concerns have helped fuel nurse union rallies such as the one outside Providence Health's Oregon headquarters in Portland on January 20, 2023. | JAKE THOMAS/THE LUND REPORT
January 20, 2023

Roughly 200 nurses and their allies rallied Friday evening outside of the Oregon headquarters of Providence Health & Services to pressure the state’s largest health care system to approve new union contracts agreeing to better working conditions and pay. 

The rally in Northeast Portland was organized by the Oregon Nurses Association on behalf of nurses from Providence Portland Medical Center, Providence Home Health and Hospice and Providence Seaside who have been in contract negotiations since last year. Nurses are pushing for better pay and benefits, as well as staffing the union argues will improve care. 

“Nurses thrive when we are able to provide excellent care, but we cannot provide that care when our employer refuses to commit to fair contracts,” Jamie Canales, a Providence Home Health and Hospice nurse who serves on the union’s bargaining team, told the crowd. 

Citing poor morale, Canales said the inadequate number of nurses was being made worse by those quitting over “unmanageable” caseloads. She said the contract needs “enforceable” language over staffing levels that Providence couldn’t evade. 

The crowd included parents with children in tow, leaders of allied progressive groups,  state lawmakers and newly elected Bureau of  Labor and Industries Commissioner Christina Stephenson. The group gathered in the winter chill on the sidewalks and a grassy area outside Providence offices located on a busy Portland thoroughfare. Some held signs with slogans like “administrators are not essential” and “Bloated Prov Exec Pay.” 

Over the whoosh of rush hour traffic and an occasional supportive honk, union officials described Providence as prioritizing executive pay over patient care and adequate staffing. 

Providence, a Catholic nonprofit based in Renton, Washington, issued a statement after the rally pushing back on the union’s claims, contending its patient safety standards are “among the most rigorous in health care.” It called the shortage of nurses “a national and global health care crisis” and that “competition for qualified nurses remains intense – especially here in Oregon.”

“We take staffing extremely seriously and are working hard to attract new nurses and retain our current, valued caregivers through market-competitive compensation and benefits,” according to the statement. “To attract talented nurses to our ministries, we offer in-person and virtual job fairs, expedited interviews and job offers, sign-on bonuses and expanded recruiting efforts in broad markets.”

The rally follows ongoing jousting between the states’ hospitals and the Oregon Nurses Association, which represents over 12,000 nurses —about a third of whom work for Providence. Similar clashes have played out across the country amid a chronic shortage of nurses worsened by the pandemic. 

Negotiations between Providence and the union last year at times became heated. Nurses at Providence St.Vincent Medical Center approved a contract, avoiding a strike after they rejected earlier offers. Nurses at Providence Willamette Falls approved a contract as well as at Providence’s hospitals in Milwaukie and Hood River.

In response to chronic understaffing and stress, the politically connected union is currently backing legislation establishing minimum nurse staffing levels over objections by hospitals that it would weaken the state’s already beleaguered health care system. 

The roughly 2,000 nurses working at the three branches of Providence have all been working without a contract since late last year when previous agreements over pay and working conditions expired, nurses union spokesperson Myrna Jensen told The Lund Report.  

Nurses on bargaining teams had begun meeting with Providence executives since the fall of 2022 on new contracts. Until new contracts are approved by Providence and the union’s members, the old ones will remain in place, said Jensen. 

The union is calling for new contracts to include hikes in pay and benefits it argues are necessary to bring compensation to market levels and prevent nurses from leaving, said Jensen.  

Oregon’s new paid family medical leave law went into effect on January 1 and began collecting money from employers and workers. The money goes toward providing paid time off for workers who are seriously ill, have a child or are experiencing domestic violence. 

The union wants Providence to cover portions of their wages that would be taken out of their paychecks under the new law. 

The statement from Providence called its short-term disability plan “market competitive” and its paid-leave benefits offered to Oregon employees “among the highest in the state.”

“While the state of Oregon’s leave plan mandates a minimum amount of paid leave, all eligible employees at our Providence Oregon ministries, including those where a short-term disability program was negotiated with the union, receive up to 25 weeks of paid time away – more than double the state plan,” the statement said. 

The statement from Providence said its goal is “to come to agreements with our unions to ensure market-competitive wages and benefits so that we can continue to attract and retain talented nurses in our ministries.”

Alice Taylor, a registered nurse at Providence Portland, told The Lund Report after the rally that she has seen her sick time shrink under changes enacted by management. She said she wants a raise to keep up with the cost of living and criticized Providence for not hiring enough staff. 

“We are drowning,” she said. 

You can reach Jake at [email protected] or via Twitter @jakethomas2009.