Thousands of Providence nurses striking this week at six Oregon hospitals 

Thousands of nurses at six Providence hospitals in Oregon walked off the job this week, embarking on a three-day strike that’s the largest of its type in the state’s history. 

By 6 a.m. Tuesday, hundreds of nurses lined the picket lines at hospitals stretching from Medford to Portland. The strike comes amid stalled contract negotiations between the Oregon Nurses Association, which represents more than 3,000 nurses at the six hospitals, and Providence Health & Services, a nonprofit, Oregon’s dominant hospital group and the largest Portland-area employer.

Nurses at each of the hospitals voted in support of the work stoppage, and the union gave Providence a 10-day notice. Officials at the nurses union say the issues at stake include competitive compensation and affordable health insurance plans. To prepare for the strike, Providence officials hired traveling nurses and notified patients to continue to show up for care and treatment. Gary Walker, a Providence spokesman, on Tuesday said the transition went smoothly across all six hospital campuses.

The nurses work at Providence St. Vincent in southwest Portland, Providence Willamette Falls in Oregon City, Providence Medford, Providence Newberg, Providence Hood River and Providence Milwaukie. Nurses at the company’s other hospital – Providence Portland Medical center in northeast Portland – are going to work as usual because they settled their contract last year. Labor contracts are bargained separately with each institution.

At Providence Newberg, Beth Lepire, a registered charge nurse at the hospital’s birth center, arrived before 6 a.m. striking alongside her colleagues and holding signs that said “Better pay and nurses will stay” and “Recruit, retain, respect nurses.”

Beth Lepire, a registered charge nurse at the birth center of Providence Newberg, joins the nurses strike on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. The three-day strike started Tuesday. (Provided: Oregon Nurses Association)
 Beth Lepire, a registered charge nurse at the birth center of Providence Newberg, joins the nurses strike on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. The three-day strike started Tuesday. (Provided: Oregon Nurses Association)

Lepire, also a member of the bargaining team for nurses at the Newberg hospital, said the small community needs to rely upon Salem and Portland area suburbs to meet their workforce needs. And hospitals in Salem and Portland can offer more, making retention a challenge, Lepire said.

“We want to stay here because we love our community hospital,” Lepire said. “We love our doctors. We love the people that we work with. We think we do a really good job at taking care of our people, but it’s hard to keep people here. It’s hard to retain those nurses because they want to go elsewhere and get better pay to take care of their families.”

Lepire and other nurses on strike committed to three shifts of picketing at their hospitals. 

“We’re going to have quite a few people out here, nurses out here, and their families and some other supporters here on the sidewalks in front of the hospital for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” Lepire said. 

At her hospital, she said, nearly 95% of nurses voted in support of going on strike. Lepire said she believes managers didn’t anticipate that level of support.

“I think they were shocked by that, and then to physically see the numbers of us in front of the hospital,” she said. “I’m hoping we’ll move them to really know that this is really important to their staff. If they want to keep and retain the nurses that they’ve had there, they really need to change some things in our contract.”

Hospital responds to strike 

Providence said in a statement it’s “fully prepared” for the strike and working with a nationally recognized staffing firm to hire experienced nurses for the strike. This includes registered nurses with specialities, the statement said.

The replacement nurses are “fully vetted,” Providence said, and 97% of them have at least seven years of experience.

Providence officials said each of the six hospitals had received an offer with increases of about 10% in the first year of contracts.

In the leadup to the strike, Providence officials accused the union of attempting “to disrupt health care access and medical supply deliveries at Providence hospitals in Oregon.”

Myrna Jensen, a spokesperson for the Oregon Nurses Association, said that accusation was false. “It seems like Providence is trying to distract from the reasons why more than 3,000 Providence nurses called for the largest nurse strike in Oregon history,” Jensen said in an email. “This strike is happening because Providence continues to ignore their nurses on key issues like safe staffing, quality affordable healthcare, and market wages that would help recruit and retain nurses.” 

Staffing law standoff

Another source of contention: the Oregon Safe Staffing Law. 

The Legislature passed the bill and Gov. Tina Kotek signed it into law in 2023. House Bill 2697 set minimum nurse-to-patient ratios and established a process for hospital employees and management to agree upon staffing levels and plans. 

But since then, nurses and Providence managers have not agreed upon staffing plans and nurses have filed complaints with the Oregon Health Authority that accuse Providence managers of not complying with the new law. 

A Providence spokesman has previously said the nurses union wants to apply staffing ratios from expired plans into place rather than the statutory requirements for staffing. 

The Oregon Nurses Association represents 20,000 nurses and other health care workers statewide.

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