PeaceHealth Labor Units Push Back on Outsourcing and Longer Hours

Doctors, nurses and other staff picketed last week as part of an ongoing dispute with the Sacred Heart hospitals in Eugene and Springfield. Negotiations continue later this month.

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PeaceHealth hospital staff in Eugene and Springfield are locked in a labor dispute with the administration over long hours, staff cuts and the use of contract providers.

The grievances involve physicians, nurses and other staff at who took their demands to the street at a rally last week in Springfield, the most recent visible sign of conflict between PeaceHealth and its staff at Sacred Heart Medical Center.

They’re represented by three unions and have different complaints:

  • The grievance of physicians at the two PeaceHealth Sacred Heart hospitals in Eugene and Springfield goes back to the reason that they formed their own labor union four years ago: Please don’t outsource us.
  • Nurses at the two hospitals are pushing back against longer hours and the loss of specialized nurses, such as discharge nurses, who help patients as they leave the hospital and connect with them with services on the outside. They’re represented by the Oregon Nurses Association.
  • The Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, Local 49, represents health care and maintenance staff, and doesn’t want the number of certified nursing assistants to be cut.

Representatives from PeaceHealth did not respond to repeated requests for comment but the hospital’s spokeswoman has reportedly said the administration is committed to reaching a “fair and competitive” agreement.

The doctors have been working without a contract since last October. The nurses and other staff have a contract until next March, but PeaceHealth would like to make changes before then. The Catholic-affiliated PeaceHealth, which is based in Vancouver, operates one of largest hospital systems in Oregon and southwest Washington.

The president of the physician’s union, Pacific Northwest Hospital Medicine Association, said many of his colleagues at PeaceHealth’s hospital in Vancouver declined to band together in a union and ended up laid off as PeaceHealth replaced them with contract physicians.

“We want to have language in the contract that says we will not be outsourced,” said Dr. David Schwartz, the union president. He said a two-year contract guarantee that their jobs will continue would simply continue a provision in their old contract.

Schwartz said that having staff physicians, called hospitalists, at Sacred Heart is good for the community because the doctors are invested in the area and patients are more likely to see the same physician at each stay. Hospitalist physicians function as primary care doctors in a hospital setting, although treating sicker patients than those who work from an outpatient clinic.

He added that traveling doctors and management companies that provide contract physicians are expensive. “Having a union here and having a stable group of physicians has been beneficial to them,” Schwartz said.

Kevyn Paul, an emergency nurse at the Eugene hospital, said the nurses association was pushing back on PeaceHealth’s plans to dramatically increase the number of nurses who work 12-hour shifts as opposed to eight-hour shifts from about 10 percent of nurses to more than half of the 1,200 nurses in the new contract.

“Safety is the biggest thing that our nurses resisted on right away,” said Paul, a member of the negotiating team. She said that mistakes, including needle-stick injuries, increase exponentially after a nurse has been on the clock more than eight hours.

A 2012 study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, which surveyed nurses in four states found that the longer the hours a nurse worked, the higher the level of burnout and patient dissatisfaction.

Paul said the nurses’ union polled its members and found up to 25 percent of them were willing to go to a 12-hour shift, since some like having more days off. But PeaceHealth has not yet agreed to set regular schedules, leaving the nurses in limbo about the potential for recovery time after the half-day shifts. Paul said 40 percent of the nurses surveyed said they would consider quitting if they were forced to work the longer shifts.

The nurses are also worried about the loss of discharge nurses, a position that was added in early 2017 to help patients as they are ready to leave the hospital. Discharge nurses instruct outgoing patients on taking their medications at home. They are informed about a patient’s insurance coverage and set up appointments and perform other tasks like helping them order needed medical equipment.

“They know all the resources in the community,” Paul said.

The negotiations are due to continue later this month.

Reach Chris Gray at Chris@thelundreport.org.