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Unity Center Nurses Vote To Join Union

Unity nurses deliver a petition to Legacy staff in May. | OREGON NURSES ASSOCIATION
June 20, 2019

A majority of nurses at the Unity Center for Behavioral Health have voted to unionize.

Among more than 190 nurses who work at Portland’s only psychiatric emergency center, 128 voted on Wednesday to form a bargaining unit under the Oregon Nurses Association. Another 25 voted "no" and there were nine contested ballots.

"That's a huge turnout," Sarah Mittelman, a charge nurse at Legacy, told The Lund Report. "We knew all along that this was going to pass."

An association spokeswoman said the union will sit down with the nurses to create a contract to be negotiated with Legacy Health, which operates the center. The contract will include everything from compensation and benefits to working conditions.

“It’s going to include a safe environment for patients and staff, and it’s going to also make sure that nurses have a real voice in the decision-making process as they’re treating patients,” Myrna Jensen, a spokeswoman for the nurses association, told The Lund Report.

Mittelman said that nurses feel confident standing up and expressing themselves about safety but she said they didn't feel as if they were always heard. "We wanted a voice to get that out there," Mittelman said about the vote. 

"We feel there is a missed opportunity between Legacy and us," Mittelman said. "We want fair treatment and representation."

Last month Legacy tried to block the vote by filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board against the nurses forming their own bargaining unit. The health system argued that Unity is not a stand-alone hospital but operates under the license for Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. The board, however, ruled in favor of the nurses.

Nurses at Unity deal predominantly with patients who have mental health problems, which is substantially different work than that done by nurses at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center – a general hospital providing primary care and surgery - and Randall Children’s Hospital, ruled Randall Hooks, the board’s Seattle regional director.

Legacy said it would fight that decision. In reaction to the vote, Legacy released a statement on Thursday: “We respect and honor all of our nurses, and that has not changed even if we disagree on the interpretation of the National Labor Relations Board’s rules for appropriate voting units.  We continue to feel that the only appropriate unit under the NLRB’s rules includes all nurses at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, Randall Children’s Hospital and Unity Center for Behavioral Health. While we are still in the process of determining next steps, we look forward to continuing to partner with you to ensure people experiencing a behavioral health crisis receive the best care possible at Unity.”

The nurses at Emanuel and Randall are not unionized now, Mittelman said. "I’m happy to help them organize if Legacy wants me to do that."

The center, which opened in 2017, is a collaboration among Adventist Health, Kaiser Permanente, Legacy Health and Oregon Health & Science University. It is the Portland area's only 24-hour emergency psychiatric center for patients in a mental health crisis. It has faced investigations by the Oregon Health Authority following whistleblower complaints. Officials found serious problems at Unity, including two patient deaths, sexual assaults, violence and other hazardous conditions. Critics attributed the violence to the Unity Center’s “living room” style emergency services unit that places patients experiencing a variety of mental health crises in one room full of recliner chairs. patients are initially treated and stabilized.

Jensen said the negotiations could include the organization of the center, including the open area called the PES, where patients are treated without privacy curtains.

Mittelman, who works in the PES, said the nurses would like some changes in safety protocols. "There are some policies - I won't go into details - that could be tweaked to better enhance patient care," Mittelman said.

Jensen said that the nurses at Unity are committed to their patients and their job: “They want to work with Unity to make it work for patients and staff.”

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected].