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News / Business / Clark County Business

PeaceHealth nurses picket Vancouver hospital, demanding safe staffing and fair wages

The hospital said care will not be interrupted during the informational picket

By Chrissy Booker, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 18, 2024, 3:15pm
3 Photos
PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center registered nurse Sarah Collins, right, joins colleagues as they picket outside the hospital on Thursday morning, April 18, 2024.
PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center registered nurse Sarah Collins, right, joins colleagues as they picket outside the hospital on Thursday morning, April 18, 2024. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Picketing nurses decked out in blue crowded the sidewalks along Mill Plain Boulevard in front of PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center before dawn Thursday.

PeaceHealth employees represented by the Washington State Nurses Association and their supporters carried signs demanding safe staffing levels and competitive wages in a new contract. Employees planned to picket a second time Thursday afternoon.

“This is the last straw, safe staffing!” they chanted in unison. Hundreds of nurses filtered in over the three-hour informational picket outside the Vancouver hospital.

Cheers rose from the crowd when morning commuters honked in support of the health care workers.

An informational picket differs from a strike. Nurses on the picket line Thursday morning were off-duty or joined the picket line during breaks. They did not stop working.

But last week, labor representative Travis Nelson said a strike is not off the table if the parties don’t make progress on a contract.

“Nurses do not want to have to do that, but if we don’t start seeing more movement at the bargaining table, we will start to go down that road,” Nelson said.

Pandemic burnout

The union is advocating for more than higher wages, including more sick time, equal pay for home health and hospice nurses and protection against workplace violence, said Kelly Skahan, labor counsel for the Washington State Nurses Association. Many nurses are still feeling the aftershocks of the pandemic.

“I think a lot of nurses are still recovering from getting the rest they needed during the pandemic,” Skahan said. “They had a really big job, and they were pushed to the limit a lot of the time. They’re still waiting for that relief to come.”

ICU nurse Duncan Camacho has worked for PeaceHealth for six years. He said a safe patient-to-nurse ratio is one of nurses’ biggest priorities in the new contract.

“The hospital wants to make statements that they are working to have a safe working environment. We want to codify it in a contract,” Camacho said. “They say they’re committed, but we want to have it in writing.”

The Oregon Legislature recently passed a bill that requires one nurse per four patients in medical-surgical units. Certified nursing assistants are assigned to a maximum of seven patients on the day shift and 11 patients on the night shift, according to the bill.

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Without similar legislation in Washington, nurses may seek employment in other areas, Skahan said.

PeaceHealth ER nurse Dustin Weddle wants to stay, but needs to see change, he said.

“I want to stay working here in Washington. I want to stay here serving my local community, not just a generalized community,” Weddle said. “This is where I live. And this is where I want to work.”

Recent proposal

The bargaining unit, which includes 1,465 nurses, is negotiating with the hospital for a new three-year contract.

“Management has not agreed to the association’s proposed workplace protections, staffing commitments or market-rate wages,” the union said in a April 15 statement.

PeaceHealth countered that its proposals have been “highly competitive.”

“They would provide competitive wage increases, benefits and other incentives for our caregivers,” PeaceHealth spokeswoman Michelle Gisby said in an email last week.

The union said at its most recent bargaining session March 26, it proposed an increase of $2 an hour, which averages out to 14.5 percent across the entire unit for the first year. The union said PeaceHealth management has proposed a 5.7 percent average increase in the first year of the contract.

The next bargaining session — No. 14 for this contract — is scheduled for April 23. A federal mediator will attend, Gisby said.

“We always respect our caregivers’ right to participate in activities such as informational picketing,” Gisby said in an email. “We look forward to re-engaging in constructive, good faith bargaining to reach an agreement for our caregivers that is fair, competitive and sustainable for our medical center and our community.”

Previous strikes

In October, more than 1,300 health care workers represented by the Oregon Federation of Nurse and Health Professionals at PeaceHealth Southwest and PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center in Longview went on strike over what they said were staff shortages and low wages.

On Feb. 12, PeaceHealth Home Care and Hospice Nurses in Springfield, Ore., also went on strike, citing a decline in wages and benefits.

The U.S. Labor Department reported that in 2023, the country saw the highest number of strikes in the last two decades. Of the 33 major strikes, half were in health care.

“This is the community we live in and the community we support. These are our people and we want to make sure that we’re here for them,” Camacho said. “That’s why we’re out here. It’s why we want to stay here.”

12 Photos
Dozens of nurses gather outside PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center while taking part in an informational picket Thursday morning, April 18, 2024. Demonstrators, who said care was not impacted during the event, were fighting for safe staffing and fair wages.
Nurses picket at PeaceHealth Southwest Photo Gallery
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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.