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Unity Center staff votes overwhelmingly to unionize

Non-nursing staff at the Portland psychiatric center voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining the Oregon Nurses Association. 
Unity Center for Behavioral Health in Portland. | LEGACY HEALTH
August 24, 2023

Mental and behavioral health workers at Legacy’s Unity Center voted overwhelmingly to unionize with the Oregon Nurses Association, which continues to make inroads in previously unrepresented workplaces. 

Staff at the northeast Portland psychiatric facility voted 46-2 on Wednesday in favor of forming the union, according to National Labor Relations Board filings. The election was open to a total of 62 workers including clinical social workers, crisis intervention specialists, dietitians and others. 

The nurses union issued a statement Thursday heralding the vote as a step toward giving staff more of a say in the workplace while improving pay, staffing, patient care and safety. The statement outlined challenges at the Unity Center, a 24-hour facility, including a lack of beds, services and staff. 

“Supporting people experiencing a mental health crisis in a compassionate, caring way is more than just a job,” Holly Friesz, a crisis intervention specialist at Unity Center, said in the statement. “A union will help us advocate for and provide the highest quality patient care by ensuring we are part of the decision-making process. Unionizing will allow us to bargain for better working conditions in order to improve patient care.”

A spokesperson for Legacy Health, which operates the center, responded with a statement to The Lund Report, saying, “Legacy Health is committed to open, respectful and productive relationships with our employees, regardless of whether they are represented by a union or not,” reads the statement. 

The Unity Center opened in 2017 as a partnership between Legacy, Adventist Health, Kaiser Permanente and Oregon Health & Science University. The health systems intended the 80-bed facility, operated by Legacy, to serve as a treatment option for people experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis who might otherwise end up in an emergency room. 

But the center soon ran into problems. An Oregon Health Authority investigation in 2018 found it lacking in oversight and that one patient committed suicide while in its care. The Unity Center has also faced a lawsuit from a mental health therapist alleging retaliation for complaining about patient and staff safety. The facility also had to turn patients away, in addition to being fined for not reporting assaults and other issues.

The Oregon Nurses Association currently represents about 700 nurses at Unity Center, Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center in Gresham and Legacy Silverton Medical Center. 

You can reach Jake at [email protected] or via Twitter @jakethomas2009.