Hospital tech workers fight for a fair contract

For two days, more than 100 technical employees at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, Ore., walked the picket line in front the hospital to demand fair pay and working conditions.

Oregon hospital techs picket line

Frank Dewolf, a cardiac electrophysiology technologist at St. Charles, was pleased with the turnout and community support for the picketers on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. “I think we showed over the past two days that we are a well-organized group,” he said, “and we are all on board to fight for a fair contract.”

The picketing comes a year after the hospital began contract negotiations with the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, which represents about 150 technologists at the hospital. The union members work in a variety of departments ranging from respiratory therapy and surgery to X-ray. The techs voted to unionize in September 2019. When they began bargaining their first contract in January 2020, the hospital pledged to work collaboratively, but negotiations have moved slowly.

Oregon hospital techs picket line

The hospital has blamed COVID-19, says Russ Amundson, a cardiovascular technologist who has worked at St. Charles for eight years. “They say that COVID has made it too difficult to bargain, but we’ve never stopped providing the highest quality of care in the face of the pandemic.”

Even though the pandemic has given healthcare workers more respect in the community, that respect has not been extended in the hospital, says Amundson. “We are essential to healthcare these days, and the hospital has been treating us like we are disposable.”

One of the biggest issues the technologists want to see addressed in this contract is an increase in pay. The wages are below market value for the area, and more than 90 percent of the technical employees report being underpaid.

“We are proud of the work we do, and we are all craving stability in our work,” says Amundson. “We just want to be able to focus on our jobs and patients and not spend time fighting with the hospital for the basics.”

“Wages are how you value people,” says Tiffany Pilling, a computed tomography technologist who has worked at St. Charles for 29 years. “It’s hard to retain and hire people without a livable wage.”

Oregon hospital techs picket line

Pilling would also like the hospital to give technical employees the opportunity to grow in their careers. “I went from being a radiology tech to a CT tech a decade ago, but it’s hard to grow from here into different positions,” she says. “I feel like the hospital doesn’t value us as techs. We are helping with COVID-19; you hear about nurses all the time, but we are a big part of the team too.”

Nurses at St. Charles are also unionized with the AFT-affiliated Oregon Nurses Association, and the techs say the nurses have supported the techs’ contract efforts.

“The contract campaign has created unity among us,” says Pilling, noting that the nurses are learning more about what the techs do. “There are so many different tech jobs,” she says, “but we all come together as one to support the community to meet the needs of patients.”

The techs have more respect for each other, as well, says Amundson. “We also have better understanding of the technical departments within the hospital, and we are looking out for each other. We had to pump ourselves up to have the courage to take a stand against the hospital, but all of the support has put the wind in our sails,” he says. “We’ll keep the pressure up. We can’t sit back and wait to do things on their terms.”

[Adrienne Coles/photos courtesy of OFNHP]