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PeaceHealth nurses in Vancouver win boost in pay but not staffing

The union argued that the Vancouver hospital would lose nurses without staffing minimums, but settled for a contract with higher wages and workplace protections
Nurses represented by the Washington State Nurses Association picket outside PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver on April 18, 2024. The picket came during difficult contract negotiations between the nurses and hospital management. | COURTESY/WASHINGTON STATE NURSES ASSOCIATION
June 4, 2024

Nurses at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver will vote Thursday on a hard-fought contract that includes higher wages but leaves out staffing requirements that their union had said could keep people from leaving.

Negotiators for roughly 1,465 nurses represented by the Washington State Nurses Association had pressed for the deal to echo a new Oregon law that went into effect last week that limits the number of patients hospitals can require nurses to care for at one time. 

The bargaining team had argued that staffing minimums would improve patient safety and prevent in-demand nurses from taking more appealing jobs in the Portland area. 

But while the Vancouver hospital was willing to raise pay, it was not willing to also boost staff. 

“We didn’t get there at all,” Talitha Wilson, a registered nurse and member of the bargaining team, told Oggys Online, of efforts to include staffing ratios in the contract. “They weren’t going to budge.”

The tentative contract includes pay increases including extra wages for working overnight or on standby. Nurse practitioners would see a 5% pay increase. Inpatient nurses would see the largest average increase at 10.3%/ Home and health hospice nurses’ base hourly pay would increase by an average of about 6%. 

Best they could get

Oregon’s nurse-to-patient ratios, which went into effect June 1, depend on the hospital unit covered. For example, a registered nurse can be assigned no more than two patients in an intensive care unit. 

Wilson said the prospect of having to care for fewer acute patients is “very tempting” for hospital staff. But she said the tentative contract is the best the bargaining team could get after four months and 18 sessions that sometimes divided the bargaining team. She described the sessions as sometimes grueling and said one went from about 9:30 in the morning to midnight. 

Earlier in negotiations, union representatives indicated that a strike or vote of no-confidence in the hospital’s leadership were on the table after nurses had been without a contract since Feb. 28. However, Wilson said that as bargaining dragged on with no deal, the union’s negotiating team decided to move forward with a contract that would give nurses needed pay increases. 

PeaceHealth spokesperson Debra Carnes told Oggys Online in an email that hospital management was pleased they had reached a tentative agreement with the union and were looking forward to the vote.

“As we pledged from the beginning, we bargained in good faith to reach an agreement that supports our nurses and their profession by providing competitive pay and benefits while supporting our ability to carry out our sacred Mission of caring for those we serve,” she wrote.

Carnes wrote that Washington law does not require staffing ratios. She added that the union withdrew its proposal on staffing ratios before reaching a tentative agreement.

Nurses will have a say

While the union was unable to secure the ratios, the tentative contract does give nurses more say over hospital staffing, Bobbi Nodell, spokesperson for the Washington State Nurses Association told Oggys Online in an email. The tentative contract would give registered nurses more influence over staffing than what’s required by state law.  

Washington lawmakers in 2023 passed a bill giving an expanded role to existing hospital staffing committees, but stopped short of the ratios in Oregon’s law. The bill added certified nursing assistants and other staff to the committees, which are half management and half caregivers. It also nixes a hospital CEO’s ability to veto staffing plans developed by the committees. However, the CEO can submit feedback that must be considered by the staffing committee. 

The tentative contract goes further than the state law by requiring any staffing plan to have the support of registered nurses on the staffing committee before it’s sent to the CEO. It also requires the hospital to adopt any staffing plan that has the majority support of the staffing committee, including a “yes” vote from a nurse represented by the union. 

Nodell wrote that  the tentative agreement would make the nurses among the highest-paid in the state, in addition to other workplace protections. “They didn’t get everything they wanted but it’s a very strong contract,” she added.

Wilson said that agreeing to put home and health hospice nurses on a different pay grade than inpatient nurses was particularly difficult for the negotiating team.  

She pointed to other wins in the tentative contract, including that it preserved a benefit that covers nurses who need time off for longer-term illnesses. 

That’s in addition to new support for nurses assaulted on the job. 

Medical workers have seen an uptick in workplace violence, and the tentative contract allows nurses to be able to immediately take time off after an incident. The agreement would also increase training, and commit management to working with law enforcement if a nurse pursues legal action after an assault, among other provisions. 

You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via Twitter @jthomasreports