More than 150 medical technicians and therapists at the Bend hospital plan to stop working Thursday, leaving the future of surgeries, respiratory therapy and many essential diagnostic services up in the air.
St. Charles Health System tried to stop the planned strike through a federal restraining order, but a judge shot that request down at a hearing Tuesday morning, saying it exceeded his authority.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael J. McShane chided St. Charles’ attorneys directly: “You failed to mention a wealth of case law against your position,” McShane said.
Besides unsuccessfully filing for a restraining order in court, St. Charles is seeking to stop the strike through pending complaints to a federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board.
“The NLRB is perfectly capable if they choose to address this alleged dispute,” McShane ruled.
The judge agreed with attorneys for the union, the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, who argued that a federal court doesn’t have the authority to step into the middle of a labor dispute.
“St. Charles asks this court to turn the clock back a century, to an era of ‘government by injunction’ when employers could disrupt and stifle union activity using injunctions and restraining orders,” union attorney Catherine Highet wrote in court documents.
At the hearing, St. Charles attorney Mark Hutcheson pushed for an exception: “This is an unusual situation, but these are unusual times. … We were hoping you would give all the parties a little more time,” he said.
In court filings, hospital Vice President of Human Resources Rebecca Berry described backlogs and care rationing created by the pandemic, and she pointed to the singular role of the health care provider in Central and Eastern Oregon.
“As the region’s primary trauma center and the largest referral hospital for over 40,000 square miles of the state’s geography, maintaining capacity and access for urgent and emergent patient care needs is critical,” Berry wrote.
The judge said he was “not unsympathetic” to the hospital system’s position, “but to some degree the emergency that the plaintiff is describing is one of their own making,” McShane said.
The Bend medical technicians, technologists and therapists voted to unionize about 18 months ago. The same jobs at other St. Charles locations in Central Oregon remain unrepresented. Now, union leaders say the hospital system has intentionally delayed negotiating a first contract for Bend employees, while at the same time, St. Charles raised wages by 10% for non-union technical staff at its other locations. That’s despite the fact that all COVID-19 patients in the region are funneled to Bend.
A spokesperson for St. Charles declined an interview and did not respond to written questions.
Delays and incentives for nonunionized positions are common employer tactics to try and weaken collective bargaining efforts, said University of Oregon labor economist Mark Brenner.
“The strategy is to give the union nothing. Tell the staff that they’ll never get anywhere with the union, and demoralize people sufficiently to where they vote the union out,” Brenner said.
Under federal labor law, members can dissolve a union if it fails to secure a first contract within a year. That’s what happened about a decade ago when St. Charles’ service workers formed a different union, which fell apart after it didn’t nail down a contract within a year.
But now, the dynamics for labor organizing have changed nationwide. More health care workers have been weathering stresses of the pandemic, and are turning to unions to try and secure higher wages and safer working conditions, according to NPR. On Tuesday, half the workers at a memory care facility in Springfield resigned en masse to protest working conditions. They went on strike last month, telling KEZI that understaffing contributed to 23 deaths in a nine-week period.
At St. Charles Bend, the medical technical workers are calling for cost of living increases akin to what nurses already receive.
“I feel like we’re being bullied,” said Bend respiratory therapist Rachel Maida.
She works with patients who need help breathing, she said, and these services have been critical in treating severe COVID-19 cases. Maida also cares for newborns in the neo-natal intensive care unit. A former park ranger, she went back to school for medical training after her own son was born prematurely.
“We spent two weeks in the hospital. During that time, it was really intriguing to me and something drew me into it,” Maida said.
A respiratory therapist was on the team who cared for her son when he was six weeks premature. He’s 6′2″ now, Maida said.
After nearly a decade in the respiratory therapy field, Maida said she copes with the constant exposure to trauma by staying focused on her patients.
“I try to get in this mindset like, this isn’t about me. It’s not my emergency,” she said, describing how it’s the people who recover that keep her going.
“This baby wasn’t breathing, and now they are. This person was really sick, and now they’re going home with their family. It’s not all bad, or I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said.
Maida has resolved to strike indefinitely with her fellow union members.
“What’s starting to become the hardest for me is that every day I have to walk through those doors and I know that the people that I’m working for don’t appreciate me,” she said.
Some union members have questioned St. Charles’ financial priorities, as it recovers from lost revenue during the pandemic with the help of federal CARES Act funding.
About five months into the pandemic, the health system bought 20 acres of land next to the existing Bend hospital. Deschutes County property records show a staggering sale price of nearly $10.2 million in August 2020, more than three times the real market value for the undeveloped parcel. A month later, the hospital system announced plans to issue $100 million in bonds for expansion projects, as KTVZ reported.
“This is all good and great. Yet they cannot treat their employees any better? They cannot pay their employees what they are worth?” reads a letter signed by all of the Bend hospital’s ultrasound technologists in October 2020. It calls for fair wages, and technology upgrades.
“Our machines are old and literally falling apart,” the technologists wrote.
Their union sent a whole packet of letters like this to the St. Charles board of directors last month, each one unanimously signed by the represented positions across seven hospital departments. These letters paint a damning portrait of employee morale during the pandemic. Hospital leaders never replied to the letters, according to a union organizer.
The radiation therapists reported “unsustainable schedules” due to cost-saving measures.
“As much as we would love to say we never make mistakes, every one of us knows (and fears) that patient errors become increasingly more likely the longer that a shift continues,” that department’s letter states.
OFNHP external organizer Sam Potter said the vote to strike wasn’t only about wage formulas and other contractual guarantees.
“The decision to strike was ultimately made by members of our community because we believe by pressing for better working conditions, we’ll improve the conditions for care inside St. Charles, which have been deteriorating alongside conditions for labor,” Potter said.
After McShane declined to stop the strike with a restraining order Tuesday, St. Charles put out a written statement.
“We are disappointed in the outcome but will continue our preparations to hire and onboard replacement workers and minimize disruptions to our patients and community,” wrote Bend hospital president Aaron Adams.
The hospital’s negotiators do not intend to meet with the tech workers’ union before their March 4 strike date. Their next scheduled meeting with a mediator is March 10.
Maida, the respiratory therapist, said it’s hard to hear she’s replaceable, especially after months of being called a hero for her work.
“We’re scared. This sucks. But if we don’t do this, then what happens?” she said. “You don’t want unhappy people working with patients. There needs to be some change in the culture of how they treat us.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that a St. Charles’ service employees union was decertified in 2012.