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Nurses at Unity Center for Behavioral Health Move to Unionize

May 14, 2019

A majority of nurses at the Unity Center for Behavioral Health are moving to unionize.

More than 170 nurses who work at the center filed union authorization cards and submitted a petition with the center on Monday for representation by the Oregon Nurses Association, the association said in a news release. They also filed authorization cards with the National Labor Relations Board, calling for the vote.

“The best way to advocate for our patients and our community is to have a real voice in decision-making so we can ensure every patient receives the high-quality care they deserve,” Amer Filipovic, a charge nurse at Unity Center, said in the statement. “Nurses are standing up to help fulfill Unity’s promise of delivering the right care at the right time to everyone in need.” 

Brian Terrett, the spokesman for Legacy Health which runs Unity, said that Legacy had received the nurses' petition and was reviewing it.

“Legacy is 100 percent committed to open, respectful and productive relationships with our employees, regardless of whether they are represented by a union or not," Terrett said in a statement.  "By working together with our employees we can understand and respond to their concerns, and benefit from their participation, knowledge and ideas to provide outstanding patient care each and every day. Legacy chooses to be pro-employee and we focus our energy on creating the best workplace we can.”   

Unity Center, a collaboration among Adventist Health, Kaiser Permanente, Legacy Health and Oregon Health & Science University, opened in 2017. It is the Portland area's only 24-hour emergency psychiatric center for patients in a mental health crisis. It has faced investigations by the Oregon Health Authority following whistleblower complaints. Officials found multiple serious problems at Unity, including at least one patient death, sexual assaults, violence and other hazardous conditions. Critics attributed the violence to the Unity Center’s “living room” style emergency services unit that places patients experiencing a variety of mental health crises in one room full of recliner chairs. 

Legacy has since hired more nurses. It now has 190 nurses on staff with 16 open positions for registered nurses. As of Monday, it had 27 patients in its living room area and 96 inpatients.

The move by the nurses to unionize comes amid growing unionization in the mental health sector in the Portland area. In October, 275 counselors, case managers, administrators and qualified mental health professionals at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare won a vote to be represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. Also last year,  Volunteers of America Oregon contracted with AFSCME as did workers at Outside In. 

“Nurses want to give every kid the care and attention they deserve. But when we have too many patients and too few staff, some things get missed,” Tracie Henry, a child and adolescent mental health nurse at Unity, said in the statement. “Nurses need a real voice at Unity to advocate for our patients and make sure everyone gets the care they need to heal.”

Kevin Mealy, spokesman for the nurses association, said in an email that "forming a union gives nurses a strong voice to advocate for better health care for their patients’, protect nurses’ and patients’ rights and ensure safe working conditions." But it would also give the nurses leverage in negotiating higher pay and better benefits.

"Because employers are required to meet with unionized workers to collectively bargain and come to an agreement on workplace policies and practices, workers have a stronger voice in how the workplace operates and can make a significant difference for their patients and for their fellow nurses," Mealy said in the email.

If a majority of nurses vote to join the union, or the union if recognized by Unity, the nurses association would represent all nurses at the center, Mealy said. 

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected].