Providence St. Vincent Nurses Vote To Authorize Strike

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Nurses voted to authorize a strike at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, setting the stage for potentially the first nurses strike for Oregon’s largest health care provider. 

The Oregon Nurses Association on Thursday said an “overwhelming majority” of the hospital’s 1,600 nurses voted to support a strike to protest what the union calls Providence’s unfair labor practices. Both sides are locked in labor negotiations for a new contract, with bargaining sessions scheduled for May 10 and May 23.

The vote does not guarantee that nurses will go on strike. However, the vote does allow the union to call a strike. Before a strike starts, the union would first give the hospital a 10-day notice so it could prepare for the work stoppage — or reach a contract both sides agree upon.

The nurses union says workers need a fair contract to raise nurse staffing standards, improve patient care and address a growing staffing crisis at Providence. 

The labor tensions come after a tumultuous two years for the health care industry. The pandemic has exacerbated a health care workforce shortage, and nurses facing burnout and exhaustion have left the field. Oregon hospitals have relied upon traveling nurses and other health care workers from out-of-state staffing agencies to fill gaps.

“Nurses’ top priority is improving patient safety by addressing Providence’s staffing crisis and raising standards to recruit and retain caregivers,” said John Smeltzer, a registered nurse and the nursing association’s executive committee president at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. “Providence is hemorrhaging nurses and staff. We can’t wait and hope it gets better. We have to take action. For two years, frontline nurses have sacrificed our own health and safety for our patients and for Providence during COVID-19. Now, we’re asking Providence to protect patients and nurses with basic care improvements, safe nurse staffing, better working conditions and a fair contract.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Providence said the company has attempted to negotiate constructively for a comprehensive pay and benefits package for more than seven months.

“Tonight’s strike authorization announcement is just the latest attempt to delay meaningful discussion, a move that only serves to prevent our valued nurses from receiving the substantial pay raises and expanded benefits they deserve,” Providence said in a statement. “When it comes to negotiations, Providence St. Vincent believes that talking solves more than walking. We are eager to continue the dialogue with ONA as we work tirelessly toward finding a mutually agreeable resolution.”

A Nurse’s Perspective 

Nurses at the hospital still hope to avert a strike by reaching a contract. 

The decision to vote was “extremely difficult for many people,” Melinda Chacon, a union representative and designated charge nurse at the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

“I don’t know a single person that is really strike-hungry, for lack of a better word,” Chacon said. “Nobody really wants to go on strike. We’re willing to, if we need to, but it would not be our first choice. So we’re hoping that Providence will meet us at the table so that a strike doesn’t actually have to come to fruition.”

Chacon said adequate, defined staffing levels are needed to ensure quality patient care. For example, she and her colleagues have been floated to take care of adults although they specialize in infant care.

“As a baby nurse, which is what I am, many of us have not taken care of adults for a decade or more,” Chacon said. “So they would float us to adult units essentially to fill a hole or a need as a warm body, but not necessarily the appropriate or the safe one for that patient. So there’s things that we are asking to be written in and then that will hold them accountable.”

Widespread Tensions 

A potential strike would only unfold at St. Vincent Medical Center. But the vote to authorize the strike points to similar tensions between nurses and other Providence hospitals in Oregon where the union said nurses across the state are advocating for the same issues in negotiations. 

Nurse contracts at other Providence hospitals, including Providence Willamette Falls and Providence Hood River, have expired in the last six months as nurses worked during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kevin Mealy, a spokesperson for the Oregon Nurses Association, said it’s possible that nurses at those facilities will vote to authorize strikes in the future, too.

“Nothing is off the table,” Mealy said, stressing the goal is to get safe staffing levels and patient care in place, not go on strike.

The nurses contract in Providence Milwaukie will expire later this month, and the contract at Providence Portland Medical Center will expire later this year.

The Oregon Nurses Association represents more than 4,000 nurses in 10 Providence-owned hospitals and clinics across the state.

While unprecedented for Providence hospitals, it would not be the first nurses strike in Oregon. Nurses at Oregon Health & Science University went on a 56-day strike that started Dec. 17, 2001. Below-market wages, rising health insurance costs and short-staffing were some of the issues driving that work stoppage, which continued until February 2002.

Sticking Points In Negotiations 

Oregon Nurses Association said its proposals for a contract include stronger patient safety standards to reduce COVID-19 outbreaks, safe nurse staffing levels, affordable health care and paid leave so nurses can receive care after COVID-19 exposures, and an adequate compensation package.

The nurses union also has filed unfair labor practices charges against Providence for a slew of issues. Allegations include illegal attempts to discriminate, threaten and retaliate against nurses who engage in protected union activity and exercise their rights to speak up for patient and caregiver safety, the union said.

Here’s what Providence says it is offering: 

  • 9.5% total in raises for each registered nurse during the first year of the contract. 
  • A 3% raise in the second year and 2.5% in the third year. That’s a 15% increase in base wages during a three-year period, according to the health system.
  • The proposal would give new nurses a starting wage of $43.09 an hour after their residency. The hospital proposal also includes increases for different types of duty, such as night and weekend shifts. 

Providence officials have denied engaging in unfair labor practices. In a statement, Providence said there is a disagreement about whether nurses union representatives can interact with staff while working at nursing stations.

Providence declined to provide details of contingency plans for a potential strike on Thursday, but said in a statement: “As these important conversations continue, our community can rest assured that we are always prepared to provide high-quality, compassionate care for our patients, as we have at Providence St. Vincent for nearly 150 years.”

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.

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