To Fix Short-Staffing, Raise Wages, PeaceHealth Strikers Say
One of the largest non-nurse health care strikes in Pacific Northwest history began at 6:30 a.m. this morning, shedding light on skilled workers who often get overlooked.
We’re demanding that PeaceHealth, a Jesuit-run health system, raise wages and fix critically short staffing—two issues that are closely related.
The strikers are 1,300 workers at two hospitals in southwest Washington: PeaceHealth Southwest in Vancouver, and PeaceHealth St. John in nearby Longview.
The strike will last five days; workers will return to work October 28. PeaceHealth had announced that it would cut off health insurance if the strike continued into November.
While technically legal, this is uncommon for health care employers. And it’s a significant threat—some employees are receiving long-term care for cancer, or support for a disability or chronic illness.
“I just couldn’t believe that they would sever our health insurance,” said Cassie Cook, a computed tomography (CT scan) tech who is on medical leave as she recovers from breast cancer. “It would throw me into a health crisis.”
Cook needs monthly medication injections that, without her health insurance, would cost her nearly $3,000 a month. A co-worker of hers depends heavily on the insurance to support two children with developmental disabilities. For some workers, she said, “the immediate cessation of health insurance could be deadly.”
‘TRAVELERS’ PAID MORE
The strikers, members of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, are in three bargaining units: Techs, Lab Professionals, and Service and Maintenance.
Ultrasound technologist Shawna Ross has worked at PeaceHealth for 40 years—yet her take-home pay now is lower than it was decades ago. “It makes me feel less appreciated, and that my expertise is not respected,” she said.
Her department has an excess of “travelers,” contract workers hired temporarily to fill empty positions, who make far more than regular union-represented staff.
Now the hospitals have offered travelers who will cover the positions of striking workers upwards of $8,000 a week—far in excess of what management would need to pay its own staff to settle the contract.
Techs like Ross and Cook are skilled workers with about as much education as a nurse—yet because they’ve had far lower union density over the past 50 years, their pay and benefits are a fraction of what a registered nurse can expect. Among them are surgical technicians, imaging technologists, and respiratory therapists, who saved lives as lung specialists during the pandemic.
The techs at PeaceHealth Southwest are asking for 40 percent raises over the three-year contract.
Lab professionals—the unit that I was a part of when I was elected union president—run critical diagnostic tests for the entire hospital, determining whether patients have infectious diseases like Covid-19 or other serious conditions that need treatment.
“I think quality patient care comes out of fair wages, safe working conditions, and adequately staffed and rested caregivers,” says Leila Johnson, the lab professionals’ bargaining chair. Her goal is to make PeaceHealth jobs attractive to new staff, and that students see these positions as viable careers.
The largest unit, with 1,000 members, is service and maintenance, which includes the lowest-paid staff: nursing assistants, medical assistants, admitting clerks, and the workers who clean and sanitize.
All three units are demanding substantial pay increases, changes in the incentive and differential programs, and successorship language to ensure their union rights will be guaranteed even if these hospitals are sold.
The contracts for the lab professionals and techs expired on June 30; the service and maintenance contract expired September 30.
At the table, management stalled—canceling sessions, lowballing proposals, and even suddenly declaring impasse, then quickly rescinding it after the union filed an unfair labor practice charge.
Members kept in touch through a dynamic Contract Action Team—a person-to-person communication network meant to keep everyone in the loop. And the union held regular town halls to build consensus about the next steps. After months of negotiating, the workers voted by 95 percent to strike.
The distance between the two bargaining teams remains wide. The union has offered bargaining times nearly around the clock, seven days a week, yet management has agreed to few.
Once the workers gave the legally required 10-day notice for a strike, management decided to cancel all scheduled bargaining dates—rather than ramp up negotiations in hopes of averting a strike.
‘TRY AND STARVE US’
Another 350-person unit of techs at another PeaceHealth hospital, RiverBend in Eugene, Oregon, has also been at the table for months, asking for raises that are enough to meet the area’s rising cost of living.
That unit includes some low-wage positions like pharmacy techs, who make just $20 an hour, even though they’re essential to distributing medication throughout the hospital and supporting Covid-19 patients to receive antiviral medication.
The union is proposing a 30 percent raise. Bargaining chair and pharmacy tech Hendrix said that’s because RiverBend wages are 30 percent below market rate.
“Low wages have negatively impacted our staffing,” says Hendrix. “All of these departments are suffering because no one wants to work for below-market wages.”
Take radiology techs: the hospital can’t seem to hire or retain them, she says—and since radiology is essential to so many other departments, the impact of the shortage ripples across the health system.
The techs are proposing to increase their “call time” pay, the rate you are paid for remaining available to come into work on sudden notice; call time pay is 50 percent lower for techs than for their registered nurse colleagues. They’re also asking for a higher paid time off accrual, and transparency in how time off is approved.
Workers say these are the “meat-and-potatoes” issues that determine whether or not a workplace can actually attract new staff.
This unit has not called for a strike yet, but has many worksite actions planned to put pressure on management.
“I think the employer is going to try and starve us,” Hendrix said. “The longer they drag out bargaining, the more tired the team and members could get and start to cave on key issues.
“It’s a battle of wills to PeaceHealth, but this is our lives and working conditions that are at stake here.”
Jonathon Baker is president of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.