Providence Newberg Nurses Vote Thursday on Unionization

Will 150 Newberg nurses be the last from Providence to join ONA?

Providence Newberg Medical Center is the last acute-care facility in Providence’s Oregon network that lacks union representation for nurses.

That is likely to change Thursday when the hospital’s 150 nurses will vote in three private sessions, the last one closing at 9 p.m.

The Newberg nurses tipped their hands on April 10, when 72 percent filed cards with the National Labor Relations Board, authorizing the Oregon Nurses Association to represent them in collective bargaining.

The ONA currently represents Providence’s seven other acute-care facilities in Oregon, as well as nurses who work at Oregon Health & Science University and Sacred Heart Medical Center.

“I’ve been working with nurses there for awhile,” said Minh Nguyen, a union representative from ONA, regarding Providence Newberg. “The initial conversation was two years ago, but it didn’t take off until last year.”

Nguyen said the Newberg hospital has always had an especially close relationship with its patients, due in part to the town’s population of just 22,500 and its long tenure in the community.

The hospital was purchased by Providence and a new, 56-acre campus was completed in 2006. It’s now one of the largest employers in town, with more than 500 employees.

“In Newberg, we were used to being at the patient’s bedside,” said Valerie Whitmore, an R.N. at the hospital for 12 years.

“The leadership used to be locally based,” added Whitmore, who lives in Newberg with her husband and three children. “But as we became more regionally managed, we felt more compelled at that point to unionize.

“It became more corporate,” she added. “When we tried to advocate for our patients, there was a general change in culture.”

When the economy turned, a lot of hospitals “pinched their belts,” she said. The cost of labor is high, and the number of nurses per patient was trimmed.

With Providence Newberg’s small and variable patient census, however, some nurses – such as those working in the obstetrics department, with its 8-bed maternity unit – were often called off shift if there weren’t enough deliveries. “The larger hospitals have the virtue of a constant census,” said Whitmore. “Sometimes we have 50 deliveries a month, sometimes just a few a week.

“Some nurses can’t afford to live here anymore,” said Whitmore, referring to their lack of guaranteed hours and pay.  “A hospital in Pendleton has a similar census, but with union benefits from ONA, they have benefits in call time.”

More important than pay and benefits, said Whitmore, is the patient advocacy that nurses provide when they have a seat at the decision-making table.

“We feel this is our duty as providers,” said Whitmore. “Our patients are our neighbors and church members. Right now, when management proposes something, we have no voice. With a union, we’ll have a seat at the table.”

Though Whitmore says she feels confident about Thursday’s vote, she added nervously, “I’m glad I live in wine country!”

Kendra Hogue is a Portland-based freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].

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