Citing ‘unlawful lockout,’ Oregon nurses will continue to picket Providence hospitals

Nurses plan to continue picketing six Providence hospitals in Oregon after their three-day strike ends early Friday, accusing the hospital of unlawfully keeping nurses from promptly returning to work.

The planned extension of picketing marks another turn in a bitter labor dispute and the largest nurse strike in Oregon history. More than 3,000 nurses at six Providence hospitals went on strike Tuesday. The nurses union launched the strike after the six hospitals, stretching from Medford to the Portland area, failed to reach contract agreements with nurses, who are represented by the Oregon Nurses Association. 

In a Thursday statement, the Oregon Nurses Association said the union, in its 10-day strike notice to Providence, told managers the nurses would return to work at 6 a.m. Friday. According to the National Labor Relations Board, workers are allowed to engage in a protected strike and must be allowed to return to work when the strike is over.

But Providence announced the hospitals would only welcome nurses back starting Sunday.

“Union leaders knew there would be a five-day replacement period,” said Gary Walker, a Providence spokesman. 

The company hired temporary nurses on five-day contracts. Walker said if the hospitals need any staff nurses to return on Friday or Saturday, they would contact them.

“If we need any striking nurses to come in before Sunday morning to meet patient needs, Providence will contact them,” Walker wrote. “If they are not contacted, they are not on the schedule and do not need to report to work.” 

The nurses plan to continue the protest early Friday.

“Given Providence’s refusal to reinstate the nurses, ONA will picket until nurses are back on their regular schedule,” the union said in a statement. “Providence’s selective and delayed return of some employees constitutes an unlawful partial lockout.”

The union said it’s filing a federal labor complaint over the situation, saying nurses have a right to return. 

“The employer has to immediately reinstate them by law,” the union said. “Providence is refusing to do that, and that is illegal.  Providence does NOT get to have it both ways. We are going to continue to picket.”

Union officials said they will defend the nurses in the event any are disciplined. Walker warned the nurses against staging “a scene” at the hospitals, saying it was prioritizing patient care. He also shared a text from the nurses union sent out to members on June 7: 

It says: “Our RN bargaining team declared a 3 day strike starting 6/18 @ 6 am with the goal of creating the most cost for Providence – we know that scab contracts last 5 days. RNs will return to work 6/21 at 6am, if Prov chooses to lock us out for 2 days in order to save money, we will shame them in the press.”

Walker accused the union of trying to manipulate public opinion: “They’re playing the media, and putting our nurses in the middle,” he said in a statement.

The union and nurses also have accused Providence Health & Services of not following a new state staffing law that requires the company and nurses to agree upon nurse-to-patient ratios, a charge that Providence officials strongly deny. The nurses union also has said the strike came because of a lack of progress to provide adequate wages and affordable health insurance plans. 

The six hospitals are: Providence St. Vincent in southwest Portland, Providence Newberg, Providence Willamette Falls in Oregon City, Providence Medford, Providence Hood River and Providence Milwaukie. Nurses at Providence Portland Medical Center in northeast Portland did not join the strike notice because its contract was approved last year.

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Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.