Historic Staffing Win for Oregon Health Professionals

Our Code Red campaign focuses on the key problem our members face: unsafe staffing. Oregon hospitals’ decades of “lean to mean” understaffing to increase profit set us up for catastrophe well before the pandemic. Once COVID-19 began, healthcare workers left their jobs in record numbers, unwilling to work under those conditions—and since then, the problems have only gotten worse for staff and patients.

We’ve heard of patients being kept under anesthesia longer than is medically safe because there weren’t enough nurses and techs in the post-anesthesia care unit to receive them. Some patients haven’t been treated quickly enough for cardiac episodes and others have had cancer diagnoses delayed because of the shortage of cardiothoracic, ultrasound, and sonography techs, causing disease progression that could’ve been prevented. In the ED and other areas, patient outcomes are declining severely because we lack tech workers to move patients through the system.

Still, hospital administrators have refused to invest in their workforce, leaving staffing at a critical minimum—and exposing staff to increased risk of workplace violence, particularly at night. The domino effect cascades across the whole healthcare system. But recruiting staff is challenging when prospective lab technicians or certified nursing assistants (CNAs) can make as much money working at McDonald’s, with less stress on the mind and body. Hospitals don’t value our nurses or our technical and professional support staff the way they value money. It’s catastrophic for our communities, our patients, and our families—and it has to stop.

That’s why the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) and Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (OFNHP) partnered to take the fight to the state legislature—and we won. HB 2697, which passed in July, is the first bill in US history to establish specific nurse-to-patient ratios, CNA-to-patient ratios, and ratios for specific units. The bill also creates staffing committees for care providers, technicians, and support professionals who did not previously have them, bringing more of the people who are integral to patient care to the table. And it has a more powerful enforcement mechanism than our previous staffing bill, including fines for violations, so that administrators can no longer manipulate the law for their benefit.

In September, ONA and OFNHP met with the Oregon Health Authority and hospital administrators on guidelines to implement this law. But its true power will be seen hospital to hospital, so one of our main efforts is ensuring effective implementation and training our members on its implications. We want workers to know how to engage in their staffing committees and how to file complaints through the new process we’re developing to ensure the legal standards are enforced.

This is a bill of hope that gives healthcare workers back some of our power—but it won’t go into effect for two years, and our healthcare professionals need help now. So we continue fighting to make our voices heard. In July, OFNHP picketed at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver (Washington), where we’re trying to rectify historically low wages for about 350 tech workers as well as the lab professionals at a nearby hospital. Kaiser workers joined them on the picket line because they know this contract affects them too. The Alliance of Health Care Unions, which our Kaiser members are in, recently released a survey showing critical understaffing in over 50 percent of represented work sites, affecting most metro regions in the country. So everything we bargain for in Kaiser’s next contract in 2025 will relate to staffing.

We are also aggressively organizing new units—gaining over 1,000 new members in the last year—because staffing connects all healthcare workers and our results show that collective action works. We can’t keep up with the number of organizing requests we’re receiving as workers see how powerful we can be together.

Long term, we’ll continue building community support for safe staffing. We want our community—our patients—to see safe staffing as critical to their healthcare. We’re using rallies, pickets, and events to educate others, and we’re sharing patient-focused messages on social media, in town halls, and in community newsletters.

OFNHP and ONA will continue our strong partnership, building off our respective strengths to bring more light, power, and knowledge to all our members. We see a shift in power right now, in Oregon and nationwide, as more and more workers are demanding to be heard. We’re building on that solidarity to make our workplaces and the healthcare system better.

Tamie Cline, RN, is the president of the Oregon Nurses Association and a bargaining unit leader at Good Shepherd Medical Center in Hermiston, Oregon. Shane Burley is the communications organizer for the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, a union of more than 6,000 nurses and health professionals in Oregon and Southwest Washington.

[photo: courtesy of ONA]

AFT Health Care, Fall 2023