Providence nurses kick off 3-day strike across 6 Oregon hospitals

Union nurses across six of Providence’s Oregon hospitals kicked off a three-day strike early Tuesday morning, though they may have to wait a few days longer before returning to their posts.

The demonstration involves more than 3,000 nurses represented by the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA), which said its nurses strike will be the largest in state history. It comes after about nine months of contract negotiations between the labor group and the major nonprofit system.

The workers have said they’re seeking “market-competitive wages” to retain and recruit more nurses at the hospitals plus stronger health insurance benefits. Additionally, the union has accused Providence of understaffing its hospitals below what is required under the Safe Staffing Law passed in Oregon last year and effective as of June 1.

“The Safe Staffing Law was intended to solve the nurse workforce shortage crisis and allow us to greatly enhance patient care,” Caroline Allison, a registered nurse at Providence Medford, said in a June 7 release from ONA outlining the strike plans.

“Instead, Providence has again made the decision to focus on its bottom lines instead of their workforce, their communities, and their patients,” she said. “This is why I voted to strike. Because if a 28 billion dollar healthcare corporation isn’t going to fight for the community, our patients and our nurses, then we will.” 

ONA sent letters alleging violations of the staffing law to Oregon health authorities on June 4, and to Providence on June 14.

Providence has contested the union’s claims over the staffing law. In an online blog post titled “Get the facts, not the myths,” the system wrote that it intends to follow the new law “as written,” but that the union “is taking positions that are inconsistent with the statutory language and insisting that their interpretation be added to the parties’ collective bargaining agreements.”

In press materials, Providence said that its offers included roughly 10% compensation increases during the first year of the proposed contract. Both parties have painted the other side as unwilling to seriously negotiate.

The six hospitals impacted by the strike are: Providence St. Vincent, Providence Newberg, Providence Willamette Falls, Providence Medford, Providence Hood River and Providence Milwaukie.

Providence has stressed that the facilities remain open and are ready to care for patients. To do so, the system said it has hired “highly qualified, experienced replacement workers” with the appropriate credentials who will be working alongside other hospital employees.

But the temporary staffing plan has also become a point of contention between the two sides.

Though the union nurses said they plan to return to work after the three-day strike, the health system said its contract for the replacement workers is set at five days. Providence said that the union’s negotiators were aware of the five-day contracts it would need to sign, but dipped the demonstration to three days in order to “shame” Providence during the two days nurses wouldn’t be able to work.

To back its argument, Providence pointed to similar five-day replacement contracts it signed last year during a smaller strike held by ONA last year. That time the union set its walk-off to last five days, though there was still a 12-hour gap between its end and the contract length.

Providence has also publicized text messages it said the union sent to member nurses outlining the five-day contract, but telling the nurses that “if Prov chooses to lock us out for 2 days in order to save money, we will shame them in the press.”

When asked about the texts, a representative of ONA told local outlets that the decision to limit the strike to three days reflects the nurses’ wish to return to their patients.

Alongside the 3,000-plus nurses at the six affected hospitals, ONA represents another 2,500 across Providence and 20,000 nurses in total.

Providence is the fifth largest nonprofit health system in the country by annual operating revenue. It employs over 122,000 people across 51 hospitals and over 1,100 clinics alongside other programs in seven states. For the fiscal year closed Dec. 31, 2023, the system logged a nearly $1.2 billion operating loss and $596 million net loss. It is also under investigation by the state of Oregon over its internal policies and practices surrounding charity care requirements.