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Updated: Providence, nurses union trade barbs as strike launches at six hospitals

As largest-ever Oregon hospital strike begins, the hospital system says the union endangers patients by trying to cut off access to supplies and temporary workers; union calls complaint ironic
Last year Providence nurses went on strike for five days in Portland and Seaside. This year, a three-day strike has commenced at six hospitals around Oregon. | JAKE THOMAS/THE LUND REPORT
June 14, 2024

Providence Health and the union representing 3,000 of the system’s nurses traded new attacks on the eve of the state’s largest-ever health care strike that began Tuesday.

Providence accused the Oregon Nurses Association of endangering patients by trying to cut hospitals off from supplies and temporary workers during the strike. The nurses union shot back, claiming the hospital system is “hollowing out the Oregon healthcare system.”

The strike is occurring at six locations: Providence St. Vincent north of Beaverton, Providence Willamette Falls in Oregon City, and the system’s hospitals in Hood River, Medford, Milwaukie and Newberg. 

Each side launched their broadsides Friday afternoon as part of a bitter back-and-forth between the multistate hospital system and the growing and emboldened union ahead of the largest nurses’ strike in Oregon’s history. 

Providence made its latest accusations in a blog post claiming that the nurses union was trying “to wrest control of Oregon’s entire health care system.” 

During the planned three-day strike, Providence plans to hire temporary or travel nurses to replace the striking workers. The post included a link to a letter being circulated by the nurses union that urges nurses to not “strike-break,” encouraging “all nurses to stand in solidarity with these ONA members and not accept travel nurse contracts.” 

The post additionally claimed that the union was pressuring businesses to not deliver medical supplies and equipment to the six hospitals where nurses will be striking. Jennifer Burrows, chief executive of Providence – Oregon, wrote in the post that union nurses have the right to strike but had gone too far. 

“Hospitals have an obligation and a commitment to care for our patients and our communities, 24 hours a day,” Burrows wrote. “For ONA union leadership to call for actions that could prevent Oregonians from getting emergency care or to disrupt care and choke off supplies for patients already in our hospitals is unprofessional and reckless.”

The nurses union responded with a sharply worded statement calling Providence’s claims “the height of irony,” calling for the hospital system to come back to the bargaining table if they “were truly concerned about recklessness and patient safety.” 

According to the statement, the nurses union has “called upon nurses and other labor unions to honor the strike and not cross the picket line,” which it called a “standard practice.” 

“If this weren’t so serious, Providence’s attempt to distract the media, and Oregonians, with this press release would be laughable,” reads the statement. “Providence’s nurses aren’t laughing. Tragically, they are preparing for a three-strike intended to raise awareness of Providence’s ongoing mismanagement and to force Providence back to the negotiating table to reach a fair contract.”

The effort to discourage nurse temps from working for Providence echoes efforts last year during an earlier five-day strike at some Providence workplaces during which the union asked the state Attorney General to investigate Providence’s use of temporary nurses who specialize in working while nurses are on strike and asserted that any such “strikebreaker” nurses “risk criminal prosecution.”

The union has not heard back from the Attorney General, a union spokesperson said last week.

The Oregon Nurses Association’s bylaws include penalties for members nurses who cross picket lines. 

However, union spokesperson Myrna Jensen told Oggys Online that, “We have not put that into practice.” She said that a handful of nurses crossed picket lines during last year’s strike Providence Portland, but they did not face any penalties. 

While employers can ask managers to step in and provide care, as happened during last year’s Providence strike, the union this year has issued a letter asking nurse managers to think twice before doing so this time around, suggesting it would place them in violation of their nurse licensure requirements.

“If you have not provided direct patient care for several years, you may no longer have the competencies to provide safe patient care before accepting a patient care assignment,” the letter said. “Note that the (regulatory) framework is explicit that a nurse must have ‘documentation of the process used to achieve the necessary knowledge, skills, and ongoing competency of the activity, intervention, or role’ before accepting an assignment.”

Third strike

Tuesday’s strike will be the third nurses strike in Oregon in the last year. Strikes by health care workers are rare, and the most recent one is over familiar issues. 

Katie Moslander, a registered nurse at Providence St. Vincent who serves on the union’s bargaining committee, told Oggys Online Monday that nurses are asking for better health benefits as well as increases to wages she said are needed to recruit and retain staff. 

“You’ve got to have enough people to do the job,” she said. “And what's going to get people in the door is a wage that's comparable to other places.”

Previously, Burrows said in a statement that Providence has offered “substantial wage increases,” a “strong” benefits package and contract language intended to improve staffing. 

A staff nurse in the hospital’s orthopedic unit, Moslander said she got a “little misty” at the end of her shift on Sunday because she knows “the faces and the stories” of the people she cares for. 

When asked about temporary nurses being brought in, she asked that they “take really good care” of their patients and that “we need the community to be safe.” 

Providence indicated in a post on its website that its “hospitals are open and ready to care for our patients” and they will care for people with a critical emergency. 

Staffing law cited

The nurses union and hospital remain at odds over wages, benefits and working conditions. The union has placed a spotlight on Oregon’s new hospital staffing law, which had its main provisions go into effect on June 1.  

Backers of the law argue that it’s needed to maintain adequate hospital staffing and reduce nurse burnout. Five days after it took effect the nurses union accused hospitals across the state, including Providence, of disregarding or trying to undermine the new law’s requirements. 

The union has released a cease-and-desist letter from Thomas Doyle, general counsel for the Oregon Nurses Association, sent to Rod Hochman, CEO of Providence Health & Services, on Friday.

Doyle wrote that Providence’s Oregon hospitals have approached the new staffing law “with a deep disregard” and demanded the hospital system comply with its requirements.  

“Providences’ efforts appear to be designed to increase nurse patient loads, thereby increasing risks to patient safety, increasing nurse burnout, and hollowing out the Oregon healthcare system,” Doyle wrote.

In response to the allegations, Providence has accused the union of “irresponsibly” misrepresenting the new law’s requirements.

State Rep. Travis Nelson, a Portland Democrat and nurse who pushed for the staffing law, said in a statement Tuesday he was “saddened” by the strike, but he would join the picket lines. 

“My understanding is that a key issue during these talks was Providence’s lack of compliance with Oregon’s Safe Staffing Law,” he said in a statement. “Simply put, safe staffing saves lives and assures that every patient receives the care they deserve without burning out the people on the front lines of healthcare.”  

Nick Budnick contributed reporting.

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