Nurses at two Providence-affiliated hospitals on Monday started votes to determine if they support a strike, citing an ongoing staffing crisis at Oregon’s largest health care provider.
The strike votes will happen simultaneously through June 2 for nurses at Willamette Falls Medical Center in Oregon City and Providence Milwaukie Hospital. The votes will have separate results.
If nurses at either or both hospitals support a strike, the vote does not guarantee that there will be a work stoppage. However, the votes would authorize the Oregon Nurses Association, which represents nurses, to give Providence the required 10-day notice of a strike.
The union represents 233 nurses at Providence Willamette Falls and 239 nurses at Providence Milwaukie.
The move comes amid stalled negotiations between the provider and nurses at both hospitals. The passage of both votes would enable nurses at up to three Providence hospitals in Oregon to go on strike, possibly even simultaneously if they wish. Nurses at Providence St. Vincent Hospital in Portland voted on May 3 to support a strike. About 1,600 nurses work there.
Providence officials said they are bargaining in good faith and have a plan to continue serving patients if there is a strike at any of the hospitals.
The three contracts are negotiated separately, meaning nurses could strike at one hospital but not the others.
Like their colleagues at Providence St. Vincent, nurses at the two other hospitals say the votes are necessary to protest alleged unlawful labor practices and to demand contracts that improve working conditions and patient care.
“Frontline nurses have invested in Providence with our blood, sweat, tears and our dollars. Now we’re demanding Providence invest in our communities and put those profits to work as intended. It’s time for Providence to listen to nurses and reinvest in patient safety, safe staffing, and caregiver retention to improve health care for all Oregonians,” said Lynda Pond, president of the Oregon Nurses Association, in a statement.
Gary Walker, a spokesperson for Providence, said: “Continued access to high-quality care remains our highest priority. We have a comprehensive plan that ensures the delivery of that care to the communities who rely on us, even if nurses choose to walk out. Our hope is that everyone will continue to bargain in good faith.”
Low Staffing Hurts Patient Care, Say Nurses
In interviews and a press conference, nurses said Providence’s failure to pay competitive wages and benefits exacerbates the staffing shortages and prompts coworkers to leave for better-paying positions elsewhere. The low staffing, they say, hurts patient care.
Gina Ottinger is an emergency room charge nurse on the night shift at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center and an emergency department staffing committee representative for the nurses’ association. She said her department has lost more than half of its nurses since 2020. That means traveling nurses or less-experienced nurses end up in the emergency department.
“I don’t feel like enough is being done to keep the nurses there,” Ottinger said. “It’s almost like they don’t really care, and that’s really heart-wrenching.”
Peggy Elia, a night shift resource nurse at Providence Milwaukie Hospital and the union’s nurse bargaining unit chair, said nurses take into account the nuances of patient needs and staffing levels — like the workload shifts that happen during a break when a nurse needs to care for more patients.
“What safe staffing means to nurses is completely different than what it means to administration, who looks at staffing as a numbers and profits calculation,” Elia said.
The union has filed labor complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging Providence managers have attempted to interfere with the union’s business at each of the three hospitals — including alleged spying during a virtual orientation meeting the union had for new nurses.
A spokesperson for Providence said the hospital “strongly denies” the accusations.
Providence Says It’s Trying
Providence provided separate statements about each hospital.
For Providence Milwaukie, a spokesperson called the vote premature, saying there have only been three bargaining sessions.
The spokesperson said proposed raises included across-the-board increases that average 6.76%, enough to “keep us competitive for recruitment.”
A spokesperson said Providence Willamette Falls has had 17 negotiation sessions with the nurses union, adding that “real progress is being made.”
Providence officials said its offers there included average pay increases of 7.75% in the first year and additional increases in the second and third years.
“These wage increases are not retroactive and would not go into effect until a new contract is ratified, so we urge ONA to focus its energies on the bargaining table,” Providence said in its statement.
Agreement Still Possible
If nurses vote to authorize strikes at Providence Willamette Falls and Providence Milwaukie, union leaders can set potential strike dates and give notice to Providence.
Negotiations are continuing amid the voting.
Oregon Nurses Association’s nurse bargaining team at Providence Willamette Falls is set to meet with Providence management for bargaining sessions on May 25 and June 3. The bargaining team for Providence Milwaukie is scheduled to meet with management for bargaining sessions on May 26 and June 16 and 23.