Providence nurses may unionize

With 72 percent of nurses filing cards in support, a union effort is moving forward at Providence's only non-union hospital in the state

For years, nurses at Providence Newberg Medical Center saw it as a point of pride that they were not part of a union.

“We felt we had this great relationship with the administration, we worked together really well,” said Valerie Whitmore, a nurse at Providence for 12 years both at the medical group and at various clinics. “There was that community focus, it just wasn’t something we felt we needed.”

To date the Newberg facility is the only Providence acute care hospital in the state without union representation for its nurses. Soon, though, that could change, as 72 percent of the staff nurses recently filed cards expressing their support for joining the Oregon Nurses Association.

The National Labor Relations Board requires 30 percent of employees to file cards in support, meaning the effort will move forward to a vote with well above the minimum support level.

A number of factors came together leading up to the union effort, with some of them tied to the hospital’s growth over the years.

“We’ve seen a big shift as we’ve gone from a small community-based hospital to more of a corporate model and a lot of the trends we’re seeing have followed that,” Whitmore said. “It’s going to be a challenge for any organization to keep that small-town feel.”

As the facility has grown in both employment and geographical area covered, some nurses have begun to feel less of a voice in the decision-making process at the hospital, she said.

“We found we weren’t being heard like we had in the past,” Whitmore said. “It had been a very open relationship in the past between nurses and management — not only could we go to the administration and say, ‘We need x, y and z,’ but sometimes we didn’t even have to do that. They’d say, ‘Whatever you need to take care of your patients.’”

Nurses have seen that style of management change and more of a top-down decision-making process come in to replace it, Whitmore said.

The hospital administration, however, maintains that the facility’s nurses have an important voice in decision-making at PNMC and that existing channels facilitate this process.

“Providence Newberg has always had an open door policy for all caregivers to engage in open two-way communication,” PNMC spokesperson Mike Antrim said in an email. “We have a history of decision-making through ‘practice councils.’”

The councils are teams of caregivers that work together within the hospital’s departments, Antrim said, with a goal of determining areas of patient care that can be improved and enacting those changes through shared decision-making.

“These councils are in place and active and we be believe they provide a proven model by empowering those directly involved in patient care to implement best practices,” Antrim said.

Still, recent issues have given nurses a sense that their input is not being heard.

One of the specific grievances arose in the birth center, a unit which formerly offered nurses guaranteed hours. Even if the number of patients dropped those nurses came to work and were assigned other tasks, but the guarantee is no longer in effect, said ONA organizer Minh Nguyen.

“Nurses from that department who historically have had that job protection of pay and hours, they started getting sent home when the census was low,” she said. “That’s a struggle. Not to say it’s wrong, but the thing that was difficult is that there was no conversation.”

Antrim said that change took place three years ago, but that nurses were a part of the decision-making process. “Staffing fluctuates based on patient volume high- and low-census days,” he said. “Nurses were involved in establishing this new model when we made the switch in 2012.”

What that involvement in decision-making looks like seems to be at the core of the debate.

“It’s more of a partnership we’re looking for, rather than someone coming in and taking over,” Whitmore said. “Just to be able to participate in the conversation.”

But Providence maintains that the existing model serves to foster direct relationships and open communication and that bringing in union representation would be a barrier.

“If our nurses choose to join a union, we will no longer be able to have direct dialogue with them without a third-party representative,” Antrim said.

A vote to decide whether the union will be formed at the Newberg facility is scheduled for mid-May. In the meantime, both the union and the administration indicate they will continue efforts to spread information, both to the caregivers as well as the wider Newberg community.

“We know this is our community, these are our neighbors and our family and our schoolmates, so we just want the absolute best possible care,” Whitmore said. “I think this is going to be the best way to make sure they continue to get that service.”

ONA has long had familiarity with Providence facilities, dating back over 100 years to 1904 when Providence St. Vincent’s was the first facility to be represented by the union.

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