Unhappy with what they call “bullying” by a manager, workers at the PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, Wash., staged a rally Monday afternoon claiming the hospital is pushing already-stressed frontline workers to increase their hours and improve their performance or quit.
The rally was focused on management in the admitting unit, but the problem of “bullying” by managers is widespread at PeaceHealth and other hospital systems, said Kat Spencer, a patient access representative at Southwest.
Spencer said hospital managers are putting undue pressure on workers to increase their productivity because the nationwide workforce shortage has left many hospitals, including Southwest, short of employees.
Ironically, Spencer said, the level of pressure from managers drives many workers to quit, creating more staffing gaps.
In response, PeaceHealth on Monday issued a statement: “PeaceHealth is committed to ensuring that the rally does not impact patient care. Our focus remains on providing safe, high-quality and compassionate care to the people in our region. As we’ve discussed with the union, and consistent with state and federal labor laws, all rally activities must take place outside of the medical center and on neutral spaces, such as public sidewalks.”
Over the past two years, nearly all of the hospital’s roughly 90 patient access representatives have quit, the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals said in a statement. “ If these workplace conditions are allowed to continue, it could further exacerbate this staffing crisis and spell a disaster for patient care,” the statement said.
Patient access representatives admit patients and enter data about them into the hospital’s computer system. Spencer, a seven-year Southwest employee, works in the emergency department.
The 43 patient access representatives in the admitting unit are among about 900 service-type employees at the hospital who are represented by the union, a part of the American Federation of Teachers. Their current contract runs through September 2023. The contract covers a variety of workers, from dietary aides and cleaning staff to laundry workers and medical assistants. Patient access representatives are paid $16.58 to $24.90 an hour, depending on their years on the job.
The union has filed grievances over PeaceHealth’s alleged violations of the contract’s requirements for working conditions, said union spokesman Shane Burley.
Spencer said the pressure from management can be subtle but has increased in the last few years. Spencer, a per-diem worker who performs one or two shifts a week, said she’s been told by management to increase her shift availability or face termination. She also said she and other workers face more “investigatory meetings” initiated by management that result in findings against workers.
“My co-workers are exhausted and most of them have left,” Spencer said. She said she stays on because she loves her job. “The only thing bad about my job is my manager,” she said.
Health care worker concerns are hardly unique to Southwest or PeaceHealth. Earlier this month, workers held informational pickets at three PeaceHealth hospitals to complain about poor staffing levels and working conditions as they negotiate a new labor contract. That contract covers 2,000 PeaceHealth employees represented by the Service Employees International Union, including dietary workers, certified nursing assistants and housekeeping staff.
The three hospitals are PeaceHealth’s Sacred Heart Medical Center at Riverbend in Springfield; Sacred Heart Medical Center University District in Eugene; and St. John Medical Center in Longview, Wash. The system is based in Vancouver, Wash.
At other hospitals in Oregon and Washington, too, workers are pressing for higher wages and say employee shortages are taking a toll on workers who soldiered through the two-year pandemic.
Like many other hospital systems, PeaceHealth is struggling financially as rising labor costs and other expenses consume rising revenues. In the 12 months ended June 30 of this year, the system had $3.2 billion in operating revenues but incurred a $50 million operating loss before interest, taxes depreciation and amortization, PeaceHealth’s latest financial report shows. That’s a sharp downturn from the previous fiscal year, which yielded an operating profit of $122 million before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization on $2.9 billion in operating revenues.
The operating figures do not include investment gains or losses. PeaceHealth’s investment portfolio stood at $1.6 billion as of June 30, down from $1.8 billion a year earlier.
PeaceHealth’s labor costs for the latest fiscal year soared to $1.8 billion, from $1.48 billion the previous fiscal year, the financial report showed.