Nurses at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, one of Oregon’s most profitable hospitals in recent years, have voted to authorize a strike.

The Wednesday night vote means it’s now up to the Oregon Nurses Association’s labor cabinet to decide whether to continue negotiating over a new contract for the nurses at Providence St. Vincent, or to call a strike. The union is required to give Providence 10 days notice before striking, a step it has not taken yet.

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Hundreds of frontline nurses from the Providence Health System, along with their supporters, held an informational picket at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, March 15, 2022.

Hundreds of frontline nurses from the Providence Health System, along with their supporters, held an informational picket at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, March 15, 2022.

Courtesy of Oregon Nursing Association

Contract negotiations between the Portland hospital and the Oregon Nurses Association are happening at a time when nurses are in high demand. Working conditions during the pandemic have prompted many nurses to leave the profession entirely and the nationwide labor shortage is making it hard for employers to hire skilled employees.

“One of the things Providence repeats over and over is ‘to care for me and ease my way’ and we’re looking for Providence to do that for its employees in addition to its patients,” said Jessica Lobell, a maternity nurse and the vice president of the bargaining unit at the hospital.

Pay, which is lower than what’s offered at OHSU and Kaiser Permanente, time off, health benefits, and staffing coverage for nurses’ meal breaks are among the issues the Oregon Nurses Association says are sticking points. The union contract expired in December 2021.

Providence St. Vincent management still hopes to reach an agreement with its 1,600 nurses and has proposed bringing in a federal mediator to help with negotiations, a step it says ONA has not wanted to take.

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Management and labor agree Providence St. Vincent has been paying its nurses less than local competitors, due to a 4-year contract that locked in relatively low annual increases before the pandemic — and inflation — drove up wages.

“We recognize we’ve got to catch up,” said Jennifer Burrows, Providence St. Vincent’s chief executive officer.

The hospital belongs to the Providence Health & Services network, one of the largest employers in the state. Hospital leadership has offered a 9.5% pay increase this year, followed by a 3% increase in 2023 and 2.5% in 2024. ONA maintains that’s not enough, given St. Vincent’s status as one of the region’s top trauma centers and most profitable hospitals.

Burrows says Providence must balance its interest in providing competitive pay and benefits for staff against a need to provide care to the public at a reasonable cost.

Nurse to patient staffing standards and coverage for nurses to take meal breaks are another point of dispute. Currently, nurses use a “buddy break” system to make time for meal breaks during their 12-hour shifts. That means a nurse takes on additional patients to allow her buddy to go on break.

Lobell says the buddy system leads to nurses missing meals and breaks, particularly when they are caring for sicker patients who need more one on one attention. The union wants staffing plans for the hospital to include break relief nurses to solve the problem. It has also proposed making nurse to patient staffing ratios a part of the union contract.

The hospital’s management team says it follows state law regarding staffing ratios and that the proper venue to address staffing issues is through the hospital’s staffing advisory committee.

ONA’s nurse bargaining team at Providence St. Vincent is scheduled to meet with Providence management again for bargaining sessions May 10 and 23.

Burrows says her team is focused on successfully concluding negotiations, but is also working with a staffing agency and will bring in travel nurses if a strike moves forward.

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