Providence nurses strike expected to begin Monday

By Amelia Templeton (OPB), Crystal Ligori (OPB) and Donald Orr (OPB)
June 16, 2023 11:56 p.m.

About 1,800 Providence nurses in Portland and Seaside plan to strike next week. Nurses say they need better pay, more paid time off and improved working conditions. If the strike happens as both sides are expecting, it will last five days and will impact the operations of two hospitals and Providence’s home health and hospice teams. And unless a deal is reached over the weekend, it will be the first nurses strike in Portland in more than 20 years.

OPB health reporter Amelia Templeton spoke with “All Things Considered” host Crystal Ligori about the impending strike.

Providence Portland Medical Center in Northeast Portland pictured on Wednesday, June 14, 2023.

Providence Portland Medical Center in Northeast Portland pictured on Wednesday, June 14, 2023.

Courtney Sherwood / OPB

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Crystal Ligori: So a lot of times we hear about impending strikes that don’t actually happen, like in Bend just last week where nurses and the hospitals reached a deal in the nick of time. Why does this strike seem more likely to actually happen?

Amelia Templeton: Well, the two sides have stopped meeting and are no longer negotiating with each other.

The sides involved here are this powerful union, the Oregon Nurses Association and Providence, which is now the fourth-largest health system in the country.

There are three separate labor contracts that are part of the dispute. One is the contract for more than 1,000 nurses who work for Providence Portland Medical Center, that’s one of their two big hospitals here in the metro area. About 120 nurses at Providence Hospital and Seaside are also negotiating their contract. And then there’s a contract for 400 nurses and other workers who do home health and hospice visits for Providence. So these three groups all decided to negotiate together.

When they gave 10-day notice that they planned to go on strike, Providence managers canceled the remaining negotiation sessions. The Chief Executive of Providence Portland hospital told me that the managers who sit at the bargaining table are the same people who needed to spend this week preparing for a strike and figuring out how to run the hospital [without their nurses].

Ligori: So how does a major hospital prepare for a strike?

Templeton: There’s really two things they can do. The first is to bring in temporary workers and the second is to reduce the number of patients as best they can. They are working with a staffing agency that specializes in what they call “replacement workers” for strikes. Providence Portland, the largest hospital involved, has about 300 to 400 people who will be coming in temporarily, but that’s not enough to fully staff the hospital.


To make sure the hospital can operate safely and still see emergency patients next week, the chief executive Krista Farnham said they’ve been transferring as many patients to other hospitals in the Portland area as they can.

“So our goal is to just decrease and get as many patients the care they need elsewhere as we can,” Farnham said. “We absolutely are making every effort to decrease the number of patients we have in the hospital for next week.”

The neonatal ICU in Portland has been closed and those babies have been moved elsewhere. They’ve also canceled all scheduled surgeries for next week.

Providence Seaside is taking similar steps and the hospice and Home Health team says they’ll continue to see all of their patients but they may be slower to take new patients.

Ligori: Amelia, how are the nurses feeling about the strike?

Templeton: Well, first, a caveat – I’ve spoken with nurses who are on the bargaining team, so they’re very involved in the union. What they’ve told me is that nurses have overwhelmingly, more than 90%, voted to authorize the strike. After the pandemic, after being called heroes, after really working themselves to the bone, working often alongside travel nurses who are getting paid more than double what they were – they want respect, they want compensation and they want better working conditions.

They also said most of these nurses have never been part of a strike before. So they have a lot of questions about how this is going to work and of course, they’re concerned about their patients.

Richard Botterill is an emergency room nurse, he’s the chair of the Portland bargaining unit. He said nurses are peppering him with questions just about how this is gonna work.

“People are scared, people are nervous,” Botterill said. “There’s a concern about care for our community. So there’s a lot of issues going on because nurses are caretakers, they’re caregivers. That’s what we do.”

Ligori: I know that employment contracts are at the center of this, but what specifically are the two sides disagreeing about?

Templeton: Wages and paid time off are really the central issues. For the Portland Providence nurses, they frame wages as a safety issue. They say if pay isn’t competitive, that leads to experienced nurses leaving and short staffing.

In Seaside, the nurses say they’re getting paid significantly less than their colleagues in the Portland metro area, even though housing has become really expensive in coastal and rural Oregon.

And then for the home health and hospice nurses, there’s another main issue and that’s productivity targets. They are feeling pressured to cut the time they spend with each patient and to increase their workload.

Providence says they offered the nurses at the two hospitals raises of more than 10% in the first year of the contract followed by 3% the next two years and they are offering better paid leave for people with illnesses and disabilities. It is still possible the sites here could decide to restart talks over the weekend. The nurse reps I spoke with said they’re very open to talking.

Here’s what Krista Farnham, the Providence Chief Executive said: “We are so grateful for our nurses. They take incredible care of our community and we look forward to welcoming them back, week after next, and continuing our conversations and I hope we can get closer.”