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News / Health

Nurses in Oregon take to the picket lines to demand better staffing, higher pay

By MARTHA BELLISLE, Associated Press
Published: June 19, 2024, 3:16pm

More than 3,000 nurses at six Oregon hospitals spent a second day on the picket lines Wednesday carrying signs that say, “Patients over profits” and “We’re out to ensure it’s safe in there,” as they continued to demand fair wages and better staffing levels.

Nurses are striking at six Providence medical facilities across the state — from St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland in the north down to the Medford Medical Center in the south.

Organizers say it’s the largest nurses strike in the state’s history, while Providence emphasized that no patient’s health is being put at risk, since it has hired contract workers to temporarily fill the void.

Scott Palmer, chief of staff with the Oregon Nurses Association, said nurses have been in negotiations since December but they “have not been able to get Providence to come to a fair contract.”

Palmer said the focus of negotiations is on “recruitment and retention issues,” including wages, benefits and sufficient staffing standards.

Jennifer Gentry, chief nursing officer for Providence’s Central Division, said the organization contracted with a company to provide replacement workers to ensure patient care does not suffer. Gary Walker, a spokesperson for the company, said the strike has not affected their facilities. They treated about 800 people in their Emergency Departments on Tuesday and no elective surgeries have been postponed.

Palmer said the striking nurses want people to get the care they need, but they want the caregivers to be supported.

“It’s really important for people to know from the nurses and from the American Nurses Association that if you’re sick, don’t delay getting medical care,” Palmer told The Associated Press. “Patients should seek hospital care immediately if they need it. Obviously, our nurses would rather be the ones providing that care, but Providence forced our hands and instead we find ourselves out on the picket line advocating for those patients.”

Staffing and competitive wages are the focus of their demands, Palmer said. When staffing levels are low, nurses can’t take lunch, there are delays in answering patient calls, and it’s even difficult to find time to go to the bathroom, he said.

That constant stress is causing record levels of burnout among nurses, Palmer said.

“We know that nurses are choosing to leave the profession in droves and there’s a moral injury that nurses experience from being unable to provide the quality care that patients deserve, because at least in Oregon, the primary reason for that is unsafe staffing levels,” he said.

Providence nursing officer Gentry said Oregon has passed a “safe staffing” law and the company follows the law’s staffing mandates.

Palmer said the nurses want Providence to put those staffing levels in the contracts, but Gentry said they offered to put in the contract that they’ll follow the law, instead of including specific numbers in case the law changes.

The strike is scheduled to run through Thursday.

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