A revitalized health care labor movement is spreading well east of the Cascades.
The Oregon Nurses Association announced last week that 40 health care technical workers — a group that includes imaging technicians, respiratory therapists and pharmacy technicians — were forming a union at St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton.
The new union, St. Anthony Techs United, will operate under ONA, which already represents nurses at the hospital.
In a June 28 letter to St. Anthony President Harry Geller, the union announced it had supermajority support among its members and requested voluntary recognition. The hospital didn’t recognize the union and is now urging affected staff to vote “no” at an upcoming union election.
For St. Anthony respiratory therapists Robert Maranville and Derek Skufca, the coronavirus pandemic laid bare the hospital’s staffing issues.
With states relaxing their licensing requirements during the pandemic, some St. Anthony staff left after realizing they could travel from state to state and make more money. According to Maranville and Skufca, management mandated the remaining staff to work night, on-call and other non-standard shifts, sometimes at the last minute.
Maranville said negotiating better compensation was a part of the union’s pitch, but members also wanted to secure the ability to use their vacation time and take lunch breaks, which are often left unspent when staffing is tight.
He later added that the union’s wider goal was to be an advocate for the community.
“I believe this is a great community to raise a family,” he said. “I have roots here. I have friends here. I want to make sure that we have one of the best hospitals in the region, and I feel that a union will help us get there.”
Geller issued a statement in response to questions about the union’s organization efforts and the hospital’s workplace conditions. He wrote that St. Anthony recently “made several adjustments to be more in line with what we are seeing in the industry” and “regularly receives recognition for the quality of care we deliver.”
Still, hospital administration wants to go through with a union election administered by the National Labor Relations Board.
“Our preference is to maintain a direct relationship with our staff,” he wrote. “We encourage all of our employees to get the facts and make the decision they deem to be in their own best interests.”
St. Anthony was established in 1902 by a group of nuns, expanding several times over the next century before settling into its current facility in 2013. While the hospital has retained its affiliation with the Catholic Church, its ownership model has changed dramatically.
St. Anthony is now owned by Catholic Health Initiatives, a nonprofit that became a subsidiary of CommonSpirit Health when it merged with another Catholic hospital chain in 2019. At the time of the merger, CommonSpirit became the second-largest nonprofit hospital chain in the country, operating 142 hospitals and hundreds more health care sites. The system was valued at nearly $30 billion.
Burdens on the health care system related to the pandemic have led to many changes for community hospitals and their workers, who are becoming increasingly vocal in challenging their employers.
In June, nurse unions at several Oregon hospitals belonging to the Providence Health & Services chain authorized strikes over issues like pay and staffing levels. Two weeks after the Bend-based St. Charles Health System announced it was laying off more than 100 staff and cutting dozens more unfilled positions, hospital doctors and other providers announced they were forming their own union.
According to an ONA press release, the NLRB will hold a hearing later this month to determine the date of the union election for St. Anthony’s technical workers