Following a 48-hour marathon of negotiations, St. Charles Health System and the Oregon Nurses Association reached a tentative agreement on a new contract Thursday, avoiding a potential strike that was set to begin Monday in Bend.
The nurses association, which represents nearly 1,000 nurses at Central Oregon’s largest hospital, released few details about the agreement, as members still need to officially ratify it. What’s clear is that nurses will likely receive substantial pay raises.
The contract is for three and a half years and includes a 41% increase in starting pay for nurses with bachelor’s degrees, the equivalent of a $17 an hour pay raise. It also includes sizable increases for nurses across the pay ladder.
“For our nurses, this contract is going to be a game changer. But it is really the impact on our patients that is the most gratifying,” said Erin Harrington, a nurse at St. Charles. “We have always put our patients, and the care of our community, front and center. With this contract, we can recruit more nurses, keep the nurses we have, stop the bleeding of nurses leaving the hospital, and ensure our nurses are supported.”
St. Charles released a short statement confirming the tentative agreement, saying it would work to communicate the details of the contract with its staff.
ONA spokesperson Scott Palmer said the wage increases will help St. Charles recruit and retain new nurses, a step toward offsetting the loss of hundreds of nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nurses have said for months that a massive staffing shortage has led to unsafe conditions for patients and staff. They filed two staffing complaints with the Oregon Health Authority in May, alleging the hospital failed to provide required breaks and prevent an overflow of patients.
Union leaders had also brought forward a specific staffing plan to the negotiating table, with set patient-to-staff ratios they wanted the hospital to implement. It’s unclear how these ratios fit into a new contract.
The tentative agreement means St. Charles will avoid the potential logistical nightmare of a nursing strike. Hospital executives said last week they would likely have had to transfer patients to hospitals across the Pacific Northwest and hire expensive temporary replacements if a strike happened.
St. Charles had announced earlier this year it would limit hiring of travel nurses due to the high cost.
The union had submitted a 10-day notice for a strike last week that was set to go into effect next Monday. Negotiations that took place Tuesday and Wednesday were the final opportunities for the two sides to come up with an agreement before a strike started.
A ratification vote could take place as early as next week, Palmer said.
Hospitals across Oregon have struggled with staffing in the wake of the pandemic. Providence nurses in Portland and Seaside announced Monday they had voted to authorize a strike, setting up a similar dynamic as St. Charles.