As of 5 a.m. Monday, more than 1,300 nurses from Providence Portland Medical Center have gone on strike. Another several hundred nurses from Providence Seaside on the Oregon Coast, and a home health and hospice unit run by the Providence Health System joined them at 7 a.m.
Some nurses were asked to leave the Portland hospital at 4:30 a.m., according to the nurses union’s Twitter account. Just after 7 a.m., about 100 nurses stood in front of the hospital holding signs and cheering in response to supportive honks from morning commuters.
Maternity nurse Erin Anderson held a Taylor Swift-inspired sign that said “Providence, now we’ve got bad blood.”
“I’m on the picket line because I think we’re very undervalued and the hospital just does not respect us enough to give us a good and fair contract for how much we’ve sacrificed in the past couple years,” Anderson said.
Another sign read, “I’d rather be nursing, but this is important.” And a third: “Do better, Providence.”
Nurses on the picket line Monday morning complained that the hospital has put profits ahead of both its patients and its staff. They told OPB they have to work with subpar equipment and that they don’t have enough sick leave and aren’t fairly paid.
Some also said they worried Providence intended to punish nurses for going on strike.
An email sent to nurses on June 8 and signed by Providence Portland’s chief nursing officer, Lori Green, states that the last offer made to nurses during bargaining was contingent on there being no work stoppage and on the contract being ratified by June 30.
“We were very clear in our communications to ONA that our economic proposals following a work stoppage will be very different and not nearly as lucrative as the package they walked away from,” reads the email, which was shared with OPB by two sources. ONA is the Oregon Nurses Association, the union representing Providence’s striking staff.
Nurses on the picket line told OPB they were worried Providence was willing to “crush” nurses to prove that strikes aren’t effective at improving working conditions and wages.
Late Monday, Providence spokesman Gary Walker confirmed that Green’s email was accurate.
Walker said three elements of Providence’s final offer were contingent on nurses not striking: retroactive pay, a ratification bonus of $2,500, and 30 additional hours of paid time off.
“The union was informed on repeated occasions that these contingent offers would no longer be available if the union chose to strike,” Walker said. “Providence Seaside Hospital and Providence Home Health and Providence Hospice also made similar offers contingent on ONA not striking.”
Jennifer Gentry, Providence’s chief nursing officer for the division that includes Oregon,said during a press conference on Monday that Providence supports its nurses’ right to strike. She said she did not know how much the five day strike is costing Providence.
Negotiations between the nurses, who are represented by the Oregon Nurses Association, and Providence, one of the state’s largest health systems, broke down in early June. When nurses declared their intention to strike earlier this month, Providence leaders canceled additional negotiating sessions and pivoted to preparing to run their services during the strike.
“We have focused, as I think is appropriate, on ensuring that we can continue to provide safe patient care while our nurses take care of that business,” Gentry said.
Providence Portland Medical Center had been able to reach its target census of about 300 patients on Monday, a 25% reduction from normal, according to Gentry. She said that after a brief transition period Monday morning when ambulances were diverted elsewhere the hospital was able to start accepting new patients in the emergency department again. Providence has hired temporary nurses to fill in while staff nurses are on strike this week.
“I hope they find what they need. I wish I could help them,” said Levi Cole, an ICU nurse picketing Monday morning. Cole, a 20-year veteran of Providence, said he feels no ill will toward the temporary nurses who have come from across the country to keep the hospital operating during the strike.
Cole joined the picket line at 5:30 a.m. dressed in a nun’s habit. He said he cast his vote to authorize a strike but never imagined it would happen.
“I didn’t think the hospital would hold its ground the way it did.” Cole said “I thought negotiations would lead us away from this. I really did.”
Cole, who worked last week, said the ICU had been emptied out in preparation for the strike. He said he felt sorry for the patients and his immediate supervisors, who were working inside the hospital on the other side of the picket line.
“This has a real effect on a lot of people in the community, and it’s not making us happy to have to do this,” he said.
Nurses at Providence Portland, Cole said, are asking to be brought up to the same level of pay, paid time off and benefits that their colleagues receive at other major medical centers in town.
In the days leading up to the strike, staff nurses – more than 90% of whom voted to strike – said they wanted respect, improved compensation and better working conditions.
More than 1,300 nurses from Providence Portland, 120 from Providence Seaside and about 400 home health and hospice nurses and other workers are on strike together. Each group has a separate work contract and distinct issues they are most focused on.
Providence reported that its latest offer to the nurses at Providence Portland Medical Center included an average wage increase of 12% in the first year of the contract, followed by 3% raises in the two following years, and an additional 10 hours of paid time off per year of the three-year contract.
The Oregon Nurses Association disputes some of these points. Members of the bargaining team say they are seeking a two-year contract instead of a three-year contract, a shift that would allow nurses at Providence Portland and Providence St. Vincent, the health systems’ two largest hospitals in the area, to bargain at the same time. They are also pushing for double pay for nurses who pick up shifts to help with short staffing, which they say would cost the hospital less than paying for travel nurses.
The union is also pushing for more paid time off than Providence has offered. That’s a personal priority for many nurses who are unhappy with a short-term disability insurance program that they now must use to access extended sick leave.
Providence says its last offer included up to eight weeks of fully paid disability leave.
New full-time nurses receive five weeks of paid time off each year, according to Walker, while full-time nurses with more experience receive more than seven weeks of paid time off per year. That PTO is though a single bank of hours for holidays, vacation and sick days.
But several parts of the last contract offer are off the table now that the nurses have chosen to strike, a Providence spokesperson said.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley was out supporting the Portland nurses on Monday morning. His wife is a hospice nurse who has joined the strike.
Merkley said that he has seen, through his wife’s experience, how nurses’ frustration has reached a boiling point, first, as a wave of retiring baby boomers led to short staffing, and then as nurses cared for the sick and dying during the pandemic, often at personal risk, and with inadequate support from Providence.
“It takes an awful lot for nurses to strike. It really shows how strongly they feel that Providence has gone off track,” Merkley said. “Rather than complaining about paying travel nurses so much, why don’t we treat the people that we have better so that they want to stay with us?”
A disagreement over productivity targets is the most significant obstacle in the contract negotiations for the Providence Home Health and Hospice nurses, according to the union. Pay inequity between nurses working at the coast compared to their metro-area counterparts and disparities between earnings for hospital nurses and clinic nurses are critical sticking points for the Seaside nurses.
The nurses association urged patients to continue to seek medical care at Providence in a statement released Sunday night.
“Going into the hospital to get the care you need is NOT crossing our strike line,” the statement reads.
The two affected hospitals will continue to accept emergency patients. The strike is expected to last five days.