The union representing nurses at St. Charles Health System in Bend announced on Monday that they have authorized a strike, possibly setting up the hospital’s first nurses’ strike in more than 40 years.
Nurses at the hospital — the largest employer in Central Oregon — are preparing for a strike due to what they say is chronic understaffing that endangers patients and is overworking staff.
“The nurses are ready for a major shift,” said Julie Bostrom, a nurse at St. Charles’ emergency department for 23 years. “And that’s what we’re asking the hospital to do — is to start respecting us and figure out how we’re going to recruit and retain people. "
Around 1,000 nurses make up the bargaining unit, which is managed by the Oregon Nurses Association.
The union began collecting votes on the strike action on May 16 and finished on Sunday. Union leaders would not release the exact results of the strike vote, but said in a statement Monday morning that the vote was “all but unanimous.”
St. Charles and the union will meet to negotiate on Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s unclear when exactly nurses would officially launch a strike; once decided, nurses must give the hospital a 10-day notice. While a strike isn’t guaranteed, the union is already prepping for that situation. The AFL-CIO, the parent union for Oregon Nurses Association, emailed letters to hotels around Bend encouraging them to not house replacement workers in the event of a strike.
If a strike is declared, it’ll be the first time since 1980 that nurses at the hospital have taken such action.
St. Charles Senior Nursing Leader Julie Ostrom said in a written statement that the hospital has worked to reduce turnover among its nursing staff and would continue negotiations with the union.
“We have every intention of coming to an agreement and we are looking forward to two productive bargaining sessions this week, followed by four additional sessions in June,” Ostrom said. “In the unlikely event, we are unable to reach an agreement, we want to reassure our patients and community that our doors will remain open to provide care.”
Many hospitals in Oregon have struggled with staffing and financial solvency during the pandemic. St. Charles briefly declared crisis standards of care — without notifying the public — last July, as the number of workers could not handle patient volume. The organization has also relied on temporary and fill-in nurses to fill staffing gaps.
Nurses at St. Charles have said the hospital has been winnowing its staff long before the pandemic started. John Nangle, who works in the post-anesthesia care unit, said while turnover has decreased, the hospital still has a deficit of nurses, spreading the remaining staff thin.
The union said as recently as March that St. Charles had 300 nursing vacancies, resulting in many staff members picking up extra shifts on a weekly basis to help fill gaps. St. Charles said this month that they are recruiting for 84 of those positions. The health system has also given nurses a boost in pay.
Nurses have filed complaints with the Oregon Health Authority, alleging that St. Charles is violating its own staffing requirements by having so many jobs unfilled.