Oregon nurses take a stand against flu vaccination policy

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The Oregon Nurses Association has filed a charge of an unfair labor practice against the St. Charles Health System with the National Labor Relations Board, saying the system violated employees' rights under the National Labor Relations Act by refusing to bargain with nurses before implementing a flu vaccination and masking policy that they say violates workers' privacy rights.

The ONA has asked the NLRB for an immediate injunction to stop St. Charles from continuing to infringe on nurses' rights while the board investigates the charge. The ONA represents more than 800 registered nurses at St. Charles facilities in Bend and Prineville and more than 13,500 nurses throughout Oregon.

On Dec. 1, St. Charles began forcing nurses and other workers to wear masks throughout the hospital facilities or receive a flu vaccination and wear a red sticker with a picture of a syringe during work to publicly display their compliance with the system's new vaccination and masking policy. Unless the NLRB steps in, the policy will remain in effect until March 31, the end of flu season.

"St. Charles' disregard for the law and for protecting confidential healthcare information is extremely concerning," says John Nangle, an emergency department nurse at Bend. Nangle and his fellow ONA members are concerned about the effectiveness and appropriateness of the hospital's tactics, which ignore other evidence-based methods of disease prevention; publicly reveal workers' private healthcare choices; and deviate from other hospitals' policies, which limit masking based on research about how influenza is spread and protect workers' confidential healthcare information.

"We expect better from our community's healthcare organizations," says Nangle. "As nurses, we must continue advocating for our patients and for fair policies that protect the public and protect private health records."

The ONA repeatedly has asked St. Charles administrators to come to the table and work together on a comprehensive, evidence-based flu prevention policy, but the ONA requests have been denied.

"St. Charles needs to show it is committed to following the law and working together with nurses to create effective, comprehensive flu prevention policies," says Sheila Nichols, an emergency department nurse at Prineville. "Forcing nurses and caregivers to wear masks and violating their confidentiality isn't the right approach."

The best approach, say nurses, is to have a comprehensive policy that includes voluntary vaccinations, community education on the risks and benefits of vaccinations, adherence to infection control precautions such as handwashing and respiratory hygiene, and attendance policies that allow workers time to recover from an illness without fear of discipline.

"The bottom line is that nurses are patients too. They have the right to make informed choices about their healthcare and to keep those choices private," says Kevin Mealy, ONA communications manager.

[Adrienne Coles, ONA press release]