Nurses at Willamette Falls Medical Center Join Providence Colleagues in Voting to Strike

Nurses at Providence Willamette Falls Medical Center in Oregon City, which also serves Canby, have voted to authorize a strike, joining their colleagues at Providence St. Vincent and Providence Milwaukie who have also done so in recent weeks.

According to a statement from the Oregon Nurses Association, the vote for the labor action passed “near-unanimously” at the Oregon City facility — which was also the case in Portland and Milwaukie.

Altogether, more than 2,000 Oregon nurses at the three Portland-area Providence hospitals have voted to strike in the last month. One of the state’s largest companies and employers, Providence has before never faced a strike in Oregon.

Nurses and union leaders say the strikes are to protest Providence’s “illegal unfair labor practices” and to demand fair contracts that improve patient care, raise nurse staffing standards, make health care more affordable and address the hospital system’s growing staffing crisis.

“Providence isn’t taking patient or nurse safety seriously,” said Virginia Smith, a registered nurse and ONA Executive Committee president at Providence Willamette Falls. ONA represents 233 front-line nurses at Providence Willamette Falls, 239 at Providence Milwaukie and more than 1,600 at Providence St. Vincent.

“For the last two years, I’ve watched nurses sacrifice our own health and safety for our patients and for Providence during Covid-19,” Smith continued in a statement this week.

“And for the last six months, Providence has forced nurses at my hospital to work without a contract when all we’re asking for are basic safety standards we need to protect our patients, our coworkers and our families.”

Health care workers are not taking the decision to strike lightly, Smith maintained. According to ONA, nurses have met with Providence managers at the bargaining table more than 45 times in the past seven months.

“Nurses have reached across the aisle in bargaining and Providence has repeatedly slapped our hand away,” she said. “We want to work but we need to work to be safe for our patients and our coworkers.”

ONA says its nurses are asking for “basic safety standards and common-sense proposals,” including stronger patient safety standards to reduce outbreaks of infectious disease, safe nurse staffing levels to ensure high-quality care and patient access, and affordable health care and paid leave for front-line workers.

“There’s a patient-care crisis at Providence,” said Peggy Elia, RN ONA Executive Committee president at Providence Milwaukie. “Every day, nurses are forced to care for twice as many patients as is considered safe. We’re standing up for Oregonians and striking for safety. We won’t settle for anything less.”

Elia said morale has gotten so bad that some of her colleagues struggle daily with a desire to quit and find employment elsewhere.

“This isn’t normal and it isn’t safe,” she said. “We need Providence to step up and help nurses raise standards for our patients, our nurses and our communities so we can give every Oregonian the care they deserve.”

Union leaders decried that, despite nurses’ sacrifices over the past two years on the front lines of a potentially deadly pandemic, they have not been rewarded with the safety and security of a new contract.

Providence allowed nurse contracts at Providence Willamette Falls and Providence St. Vincent to expire in 2021. Providence Milwaukie’s contract expired in May.

The hospital system, which is the largest in Oregon, also released a statement on Thursday night, saying the company intended to continue working toward a new contract deals with ONA-represented nurses.

“While we think it is premature and are disappointed by ONA’s strike authorization votes, we are eager to continue dialogue with ONA as we work to find mutually agreeable solutions,” the statement said. “Since contracts are settled at the bargaining table, we encourage the union to avoid a costly strike for our nurses.”

If nurses at any facility do follow through on their threat to strike, the company said it will “turn all of our attention to preparing to serve our patients and return to negotiations,” and that “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,” Providence said. “Our hope is that everyone will continue to bargain in good faith. Talking solves more than walking.”

ONA nurses are leading site meetings to begin preparing for strikes and working to determine strike dates. When strikes are called ONA will give Providence a 10-day notice to allow management adequate time to cease admissions and transfer patients or to reach a fair agreement with nurses and avert a work stoppage.

Providence is Oregon’s largest health care system and collects more than half of its revenue from Oregoniansm despite serving hospitals and patients across the country. ONA nurses are asking Providence’s corporate executives to re-invest in safe, high-quality, affordable health care before it’s too late.

“I take pride in being a nurse,” Smith said. “I do my best every day to provide excellent care in the face of adversity and I strive to bring comfort and healing to my patients and their families, even in their darkest hours.

“I shouldn’t have to fight this hard to ensure our nurses are taken care of, too. It’s time for Providence to prove it cares for its caregivers.”

On June 6, the news emerged that nurses at Providence St. Vincent had reached a tentative agreement with hospital management, while negotiations at Willamette Falls and Milwaukie continued.

However, later reporting by Ben Botkin at The Lund Report suggested the agreement negotiated by the union bargaining team may not be accepted by the majority of members.

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