Oregon nurses call on their hospital to invest bailout funds in essential caregivers

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Frontline nurses, healthcare workers and community members rallied outside Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria, Ore., on June 24 to demand hospital administrators invest the coronavirus bailout funds they received in essential healthcare workers and community health and safety. 

nurses stand outside with hospital sign

The rally was led by members of the Oregon Nurses Association and Service Employees International Union 49 that together represent nearly 500 workers at the hospital.

"Nurses, healthcare workers and support staff are doing the best we can, but we can’t keep adding patients without bringing back our co-workers to help care for them. Our patients and staff deserve a hospital that invests in its community and chooses people and safety over profits,” said Angie Tucker, a nurse at the hospital and an ONA member.

Columbia Memorial Hospital is one of Oregon’s most profitable hospitals; but in March, the hospital laid off nearly 100 healthcare workers—leaving them without work or health insurance during a growing pandemic. Even more upsetting is the fact the hospital received $8.4 million in taxpayer support through the federal CARES Act. The funds were intended to give financial relief to hospitals providing essential services during the pandemic.

Months into the COVID-19 crisis, nurses and health professionals working on the frontlines at the hospital continue to put themselves at risk; they have had to reuse single-use masks and other personal protective equipment throughout their shifts or until their PPE broke down completely.

In the early days of the pandemic, hospital management asked nurses and other health professionals to take voluntary layoffs in exchange for health insurance and six weeks of unemployment. Most of the workers who took the voluntary layoff were parents, had working spouses or were immunocompromised, says Tucker.

“I’m single. It’s frightening to me not to have a job,” says Tucker. Although she continued to work, her hours were cut to 23 a week. “It was quite a struggle for those of us who stayed. It was awful. I made too much to get unemployment but not enough to pay the bills.”

The pay cuts and layoffs made it harder for healthcare workers to do their jobs, forcing them to treat more patients in less time. The hospital has managed to bounce back from the pandemic and is working at full capacity.

But Tucker says, none of the people who were laid off have been brought back.

“We are still scheduling the same numbers of patients and procedures as we did prior to COVID-19, but we are short staffed. It’s hard to keep up,” says Tucker, who works in the hospital’s same-day surgery department. “While Columbia Memorial Hospital aspires to be the largest rural hospital in the state, this can’t be done without a full staff. They need to bring back laid-off workers so that our patients and vulnerable communities receive the care they need to be safe and healthy, and for our staff to be respected and cared for during this health crisis.”

The union is calling on Columbia Memorial Hospital to do the right thing: invest its $8.4 million taxpayer bailout in the caregivers who keep their community safe by restoring critical healthcare positions and health insurance for hospital workers. The union is also demanding that nurses and frontline workers have access to sick leave and additional paid time off throughout the pandemic, as well as access to and transparency around PPE, which is essential to protect patients and caregivers.

“I get that there is a business side to this, but there is a people side too,” says Tucker. “I have friends and co-workers with no jobs, and the hospital can fix it. But they won’t.”

[Adrienne Coles]