Oregon nurses rally to preserve sick leave and reach a fair contract amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Hillsboro, Ore., a town 20 miles west of Portland, has been fortunate because it has not been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. But nurses and allied healthcare workers at the town’s hospital—Oregon Health & Science University Hillsboro Medical Center—have tested and cared for community members with the virus. So when the hospital decided to stop informing nurses and other workers about confirmed coronavirus exposures and proposed a plan to cut workers’ sick leave and break support staff, nurses were upset. On May 1, more than 100 nurses and their family members held a protest—with social distancing—in front of the hospital to call attention to the wrong-headed policy decisions.

Female nurse from ONA Hillsboro stands with other health staff in the background

“I’ve worked at this hospital for almost 40 years. I love this community; we aren’t co-workers, we’re family,” says Terri Kaiser, a nurse at the hospital. “But hospital management has pushed nurses to the breaking point. During a pandemic, it’s more important than ever that nurses have sick leave so we can take the time we need to recover and get back to caring for our community.”

The 220 registered nurses at the hospital are represented by the Oregon Nurses Association. They have been fighting for a fair contract since February 2020 and are currently working without a contract after management walked away from a 17-hour negotiation session on April 29.

“Refusing to tell nurses they’ve been exposed to a deadly disease is indefensible. Nurses need to know when we’ve been exposed to COVID-19 so we can take steps to protect ourselves, our patients and our families,” says ONA statewide President Lynda Pond. “It is a hospital’s responsibility to make sure we can do our jobs safely by providing proper safety equipment, sick leave and break relief. OHSU Hillsboro needs to listen to nurses and do the right thing to restore the community’s faith in its local hospital.”

The  community is behind the nurses. During the protest, residents of Hillsboro showed their support—honking from their cars as they passed by the protest. “It made us feel validated and supported.”

Kaiser made it clear that the nurses’ issues with the hospital were not about the personal protective equipment that many of our healthcare workers are fighting for. But the nurses are concerned about proposed cuts to sick leave, break relief nurses and failing to let workers know when they have been exposed to a patient with COVID-19. “On April 21, we were notified that we would no longer receive notification about exposures. They put the onus on the nurses to determine when we’ve been exposed to a positive patient.”

“Nurses dedicate their lives to caring for people who are sick and vulnerable,” says Cindy Kistler, a nurse at the hospital. “We’re asking hospital management to do the same and support nurses so we can care for ourselves and our families when we get sick.”

Despite serving on the frontlines of a pandemic, nurses at OHSU Hillsboro are continuing to advocate for their patients and co-workers as they call on the hospital to return to the bargaining table to reach a fair agreement that addresses nurses’ concerns.

 “We hear that nurses are heroes. We don’t want to be heroes,” says Kaiser. “We just want to be safe and have the hospital take responsibility for our safety.”

[Adrienne Coles]