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News / Business / Clark County Business

‘People are just much more willing to fight’: More health care workers in Clark County push to unionize

After pandemic, ‘nurses were burned out and fed up’

By Chrissy Booker, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 28, 2024, 6:05am

Unionization efforts across the health care field continue to increase in Clark County and beyond as workers steadily organize to secure more workplace protections.

Health care workers say they hope to secure better working conditions, pay equity, safe staffing and protection from workplace violence, especially in the wake of the pandemic when many nurses said they felt overworked and undervalued.

“It’s one of the best opportunities for us to have a voice that can directly result in change. That to me is a big reason why I’m in favor of people unionizing,” said David Watson, a hospice social worker at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. “I think it’s a way to make various systems better and have ripple effects for the community.”

In the past month, two separate groups of health care workers in Southwest Washington and Oregon voted to unionize with the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, an affiliate of the 1.7 million member American Federation of Teachers, increasing membership by 10 percent, communications organizer Shane Burley said.

One of those groups included 260 workers at PeaceHealth Southwest, who voted by a 65 percent margin to join the Oregon-based union Thursday.

“For workers, and particularly for frontline essential workers, a lot of them are really underpaid,” Burley said. “All of that leads to just a cultural difference where people are just much more willing to fight.”

‘Chopping block’

Health care is among the biggest industries in the United States.

In 2022, 14.7 million people 16 and older were employed in health care, accounting for 9.3 percent of total employment in the country. Employment in the top 25 health care occupations represented more than four-fifths of the 14.7 million people working in the health care field, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency reported physicians worked an average of 47.9 hours per week in 2022.

The growing sector is evolving and consolidating, which raises concerns among health care workers.

Longview resident Meagan Hollis, 29, felt like she was losing control in her workplace.

As a medical laboratory scientist for Labcorp at Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center in Tualatin, Ore., she said she felt like a stranger was taking the wheel following the August announcement that Legacy Health would merge with Oregon Health and Science University. It is ultimately why she decided to join a union, hoping it will result in better wages, benefits and working conditions.

“After coming through the pandemic to see that we were the first one on the chopping block to go, it felt really disrespectful. We felt undervalued,” Hollis said. “We just wanted to kind of take some of that power back and make sure we had an equal voice at the table to make sure that we protect that culture.”

Hollis is among the 400 Oregon and Southwest Washington Labcorp workers who voted by an 86 percent margin earlier this month to join the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. Labcorp operates at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center and employs 54 workers in Vancouver. The company took over Legacy Health’s laboratory business in July 2023, when the hospital system announced it was selling off its outreach laboratory business.

Since Labcorp operates separately from the Legacy hospital system, many of its employees felt like they did not have the same workplace protections, Burley said.

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But the vote is just the first step. Now, bargaining will begin for each unit to negotiate a workplace contract.

“We started working with lab workers who are feeling a lot of instability and incredible amounts of overwork. It’s dangerous for workers. It’s dangerous for the future of patient care,” Burley said. “So, workers wanted to organize. They wanted to have a voice on this.”

Worker unrest

The Oregon Federation of Nurse and Health Professionals has spearheaded multiple strikes and pickets in Clark County. Strike activity in health care across the country has been just as strong. From the start of 2022 to September, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 42 work stoppages of 1,000 or more strikers — a third of those strikes were in health care.

Last year, nearly 2,000 union members from PeaceHealth’s Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver and St. John Medical Center in Longview, led a five-day strike to secure a new contract. Those workers alleged stalled negotiations, critically low staffing levels, low wages and what the union described as bad-faith bargaining.

In October, more than 75,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers around the nation went on strike for three days — marking the largest-documented healthcare strike in U.S. history.

And just last month, PeaceHealth employees, part of the Washington State Nurses Association, participated in an informational picket at the Vancouver hospital, demanding safe staffing levels and competitive wages as a part of a new contract.

That union represents more than 20,000 members across the state.

Jayson Dick, director of labor for the Washington State Nurses association, said he believes increased issues in the workplace following the pandemic have contributed to the rise of unionization.

“Much of the push to unionize nationally is coming from Gen Z, who face a precarious future and see unions as offering them stability and protection,” Dick said in an email to The Columbian. “Nurses have received lots of education on how to care for patients, but they are given roadblock after roadblock to delivering the care they are trained to do.”

Fighting for nurses

As the health care industry experiences a surge of labor activity, many health care workers in different types of jobs have overlapping concerns, such as fair compensation, adequate staffing levels, workplace violence and improved working conditions.

And years since the beginning of the pandemic, many nurses still feel undervalued, Dick said.

“Coming out of the pandemic, nurses were burned out and fed up. They watched their colleagues become travel nurses or leave the profession. They missed breaks. They were called back after a shift,” Dick said. “They didn’t have safe staffing, and they were not able to do their job properly. And many were traumatized from watching colleagues and patients die during the pandemic. Without unions, nurses would be fleeing in even greater numbers.”

Labor activity for the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals will not slow down any time soon. In 2025, the union will negotiate one of the biggest union contracts with Kaiser Permanente, as part of the 57,000-worker Alliance of Healthcare Unions.

Hollis believes there is strength in numbers when it comes to unionization.

“We need to keep increasing the unit density to show that health care corporations that we aren’t going to be sold out,” Hollis said. “We aren’t going to be disrespected because the health care system doesn’t run without us.”

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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.