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Vancouver nurses eye Oregon’s new hospital staffing law

Across the Columbia River, nurses at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center want Oregon-style staff levels in their union contract. They plan to picket outside their hospital on Thursday.
PeaceHealth, Vancouver - Medical Center Physician's Building. | COURTESY PEACEHEALTH
April 16, 2024

Talitha Wilson remembers how “ecstatic” nurses at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver were when they secured their first union contract in 1999. 

“I got a $5 an hour raise, like immediately,” Wilson told Oggys Online. “That was huge.”

Now, despite 29 years at PeaceHealth Southwest, Wilson echoes other nurses at the hospital who say they’ve been looking at nursing jobs in Portland and thinking about making a change. 

Not surprisingly, one reason they cite is better pay. But they also cite a new reason: Oregon’s new law limiting how many patients nurses can be required to care for in hospitals at once.

In contract negotiations over wages and working conditions at the Vancouver hospital, union negotiators representing the 1,465 nurses there want Oregon’s nurse-to-patient ratios included in their new three-year contract. 

“At times, nurses have to run room to room to provide safe care,” said Didi Gray, a labor and delivery nurse who is a member of the union bargaining team and co-chair of the hospital staffing committee. She said that the hospital would benefit from having the same staffing requirements as Oregon, which apply to nurses and other staff. “Nurses need safe working conditions for patients to have the best health outcomes they deserve.”

That demand and others are likely to be on display Thursday when nurses, represented by the Washington State Nurses Association, hold a picket outside of PeaceHealth Southwest that they say is intended to highlight lack of progress in negotiations. 

Debra Carnes, a spokesperson for the Vancouver-based Catholic health system, told Oggys Online in an email that hospital management’s proposals “have been highly competitive” and they respect nurses’ right to picket.

“Our goal is to reach an agreement as soon as possible so our caregivers can benefit from the highly competitive improvements our offer would provide, and we can focus on our shared goal of serving our patients with the highest quality care,” she said. 

She did not answer specific questions from Oggys Online regarding how the hospital is responding to Oregon’s staffing law. 

But what’s clear is that the law, passed with union backing, is giving new leverage to nurses working on the other side of the Columbia River.

Oregon nurses rallied in support of higher pay and putting hospital staffing ratios into state law. 

No strike, for now

In addition to staffing, contract negotiations concerning the 450-bed hospital have other familiar fault lines including wages, sick time, breaks and workplace safety measures such as beefed-up security screening and protocols. 

The nurses’ contract expired Feb. 28, meaning the nurses have continued to work for over a month without a deal.

The next scheduled bargaining session on April 23 will include a federal mediator, according to Carnes. 

The picket will occur 400 N.E. Mother Joseph Place in Vancouver from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., timed to catch the attention of rush-hour commuters and hospital executives. 

The picket is not a strike but it signals an increasing dissatisfaction among the hospital’s nurses on contract negotiations, said  Travis Nelson, a Washington State Nurses Association staff member who helps with labor negotiations.

Nelson also serves as a state representative in the Oregon Legislature, where he cosponsored the state’s staffing law.

“This is really a potential turning point,” he said of the picket..

He said some nurses have called for a vote of no-confidence in the hospital’s leadership, and a strike is “not off the table.”

Next steps for the union depend on how bargaining goes after the picket, he said. 

Patients should not expect disruptions to care during the picket, Carnes said. 

“We look forward to re-engaging in constructive, good faith bargaining to reach an agreement for our caregivers that is fair, competitive and sustainable for our medical center and our community,” she said. 

“It’s a big deal. In both Oregon and Washington we know that unsafe staffing levels are the biggest reason nurses leave the profession and burnout,”

New Washington law lacks staffing ratios

Nurses in Oregon and Washington used their post-pandemic leverage to pass new laws around hospital staffing during the 2023 legislative sessions in each state. 

Washington’s law increased penalties for hospitals where nurses and other staff miss required meal and rest breaks. The law also expanded membership of hospitals’ required staffing committees to include certified nursing assistants and other staff, while eliminating CEOs’ ability to veto those committee’s staffing plans. 

Regulators in Washington can impose minimum requirements on hospitals that don’t follow the law. But it doesn’t require all hospitals to follow  minimum nurse-staffing ratios as Oregon does.

Oregon’s nurse-to-patient ratios will go into effect in June. The ratios differ depending on the hospital unit. For example, a registered nurse can only be assigned up to five surgery patients.

Backers of the Oregon law argued that chronic hospital understaffing is worsening the shortage of nurses.    

“I don’t have to go across the river to Portland. I do really like the unit I work in. It’s exactly what I'm looking for in my nursing career,”

“It’s a big deal,” Nelson said in a followup text. “In both Oregon and Washington we know that unsafe staffing levels are the biggest reason nurses leave the profession and burnout.”

Nelson said that PeaceHealth South already recruits significantly from Oregon and it needs to be competitive with the state.  The nurses union at PeaceHealth Southwest wants the hospital to adopt the ratios to ensure nurses can take breaks and aren’t assigned too many patients, according to members of the union bargaining team. 

Wilson, a member of the bargaining team, said that an analysis by the Washington State Nurses Association shows nurses are already leaving PeaceHealth Southwest for jobs at other hospitals in Vancouver or in Portland that pay up to $10 more per hour. 

Samantha Golden, who has worked as a registered nurse at PeaceHealth Southwest for over two years, told Oggys Online she is assigned six patients for most of her shifts on the med surg telemetry unit, which monitors patients who require intermediate care.

She said the number of patients means she can’t give each one the personalized care she’d like to. And whether she stays at PeaceHealth is “the million-dollar question.

“I would like to continue to work at PeaceHealth Southwest because it’s in my community,” she said. “I don’t have to go across the river to Portland. I do really like the unit I work in. It’s exactly what I'm looking for in my nursing career.”

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