Nurses at St. Charles Health System Bend — the largest health provider and employer in Central Oregon — announced on Friday they intend to strike, having submitted a legally required 10-day notice to the hospital.
The announcement is the culmination of simmering tensions between the hospital’s frontline staff and its administrators. Nearly 1,000 nurses at the hospital could go on strike if no agreement is reached.
Nurses have said there are not enough staff to meet patient demand, which they say is leading to potentially dangerous conditions.
“Your nurse may not be able to prioritize your hygiene, your medications, your pain medications, getting you to a test that you need to go to, because they simply cannot be in too many places at the same time,” said Erin Harrington, a nurse at the hospital.
In particular, nurses said that St. Charles has rejected their proposals for smaller staff-to-patient ratios. They are also seeking an additional $5 an hour pay raise, along with a 4% raise each year until 2026.
It remains to be seen how a strike might impact access to care across Central Oregon.
St. Charles Chief Operating Officer Iman Simmons said in a press conference on Friday that a strike could force the hospital to decrease services and transfer patients to hospitals in Portland, Boise and Seattle. St. Charles is the only Level II trauma center east of the Cascades in Oregon.
“Should the nurses strike, we expect services to be greatly impacted and those impacts will be felt throughout our region,” Simmons said. “We believe a strike will essentially result in disruption of services for multiple counties.”
Simmons said that, in the event of a strike, the hospital would hire temporary nurses. The hospital previously sought to reduce its reliance on travel nurses, who tend to be far more expensive than full-time staffers.
The union has said there are more than 300 nursing vacancies at St. Charles, even though the hospital is hiring for roughly 80 positions. While COVID-19 has left its impact on the health care industry, union leaders said St. Charles has struggled to retain nurses for years.
Those with the union have said patients are already seeing negative effects because of the nurse shortage. Harrington said it’s not uncommon for patients to wait a long time for admission.
“When they get into the emergency room, if they need to be admitted into the hospital, they may be there for a few hours, some of them a few days,” she said.
The union and hospital have two more chances to reach an agreement that would avert a possible strike. Bargaining sessions are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, and a federal mediator will be in attendance. If those negotiations fail, a strike would start on June 12.
More negotiations are scheduled for later this month.
Should a strike start, it will be the first time nurses at the hospital have walked out since 1980. Technical workers at St. Charles also went on strike for more than a week in 2021.
In response to the criticism, hospital administrators have consistently pointed to decreasing turnover among its nursing staff in recent months and a recent $ 5-an-hour increase in pay. The union has maintained there are still hundreds of vacant positions the hospital has not filled.
St. Charles, as with hospitals across Oregon, has struggled financially in recent years. The hospital lost $35 million last year, although it began to report positive financial figures at the start of 2023.