Astoria nurses take their contract fight to the community

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Nurses at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria, Ore., have been fighting more than four months for a fair contract that includes consistent scheduling and safe staffing. The Oregon Nurses Association represents the 135 registered nurses at CMH. Their contract expired May 31; since then, they have held an informational picket, a town hall and a march to protest the hospital’s refusal to negotiate and to educate the community about their efforts to put the quality of care before record-breaking profits and executive bonuses.

strikers striking

The nurses are calling on the hospital to embed the Oregon Nurse Staffing Law into their collective bargaining contract. This state law was enacted in 2015 to ensure safe patient care in acute care hospitals. The Oregon Health Authority enforces the law but has a three-year backlog of complaints. CMH nurses want the law included in their new contract to facilitate faster union grievances against violations. It is not an unprecedented proposal; 19 unionized hospitals in the state already have included it in their contracts. The hospital administration is currently taking advantage of the backlog and is against any other enforcement of safe staffing.

Kelsey Betts, a nurse in the family birthing center and chair of the ONA/CMH bargaining unit’s  negotiating team, disagrees: “If you don’t intend to break the law, then what’s the issue with having it in the contract?”

Betts says having the law included in the contract is the best solution for the nurses and the hospital. “We can fix things internally, and it would save both sides a lot of time,” she says, noting that the union still has open cases from 2016 and 2017.

The nurses also want the hospital to address retention and recruitment issues that stem from the lack of stability in scheduled hours; the hospital has been restructuring its operating hours in an attempt to expand its business. Due to mismanagement of these changes, it has cost nurses vast portions of their paychecks. Management has refused to do anything to make this right. The nurses have proposed a protection to their scheduled hours they call “part-time plus,” since they lack any full time equivalent (FTE) or other system to protect schedules.

“Over the last six months, nurses have repeatedly seen their hours cut, more than other hospitals of our size,” says Shaun Haner, a CMH emergency department nurse and member of the negotiations team. “The number of hours per period can vary greatly, making it hard to budget for the month, six months or the year. No one can live like this long term, and it makes it impossible to recruit or retain high-quality nurses.”

speaker speaking

“Roughly 75 percent of the nurses at CMH work part-time hours—but not because they want to,” says Nicholas Bowling, vice chair of the negotiations team and a recovery room nurse at CMH. “A lot of people have families here and want to stay,” he adds, “but we keep hearing nurses say, they simply can’t work at a hospital that won’t provide them the stability to be able to pay their bills month to month.”

CMH is one of the most profitable hospitals in Oregon, and the nurses say that money belongs at the bedside. Community members have been supportive of the nurses, and so have lawmakers. When the nurses marched in downtown Astoria on Sept. 21, they were joined by hundreds of supporters, including U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and leaders of other unions. The nurses union has had three mediation sessions, but the hospital administration was a no-show at the last session and refused to agree to additional negotiation dates. A federal mediator, who was brought in to help facilitate negotiations, has requested both parties meet on Oct. 16 for an open discussion about unresolved issues.

“The North Coast community does not deserve this kind of treatment by the hospital administration,” says Bowling. “We feel disrespected. The hospital doesn’t respect us as professionals. Our goal is to improve patient care.We will not back down on our demand for contract protections that guarantee our nurses a voice in setting safe staffing levels.”

“The community support is the reason why we are continuing our fight,” says Betts. “We want to have the proper staffing for the people who come to the hospital for care.”

 [Adrienne Coles]