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As hundreds of nurses picket, Providence CEO pushes back on staffing claim

Picketers said that years of staffing shortages, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, have left them exhausted and with plummeting morale.
Credit: Cathy Cheney/Portland Business Journal
Nurses held an informational picket at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center on March 15, 2022.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Hundreds of nurses on Tuesday evening lined Barnes Road in front of Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, which is in the midst of contract negotiations with Oregon’s largest nurses’ union.

Picketers said they were exhausted and angry after years of working in the pandemic and low morale was driving nurses away.

The Oregon Nurses Association, which represents 15,000 nurses statewide and 4,000 at Providence hospitals, said more than 700 people turned out for the informational picket. Some work at other Providence hospitals as far away as Medford and Seaside, some came from competing health systems, including Legacy Health and OHSU Healthcare.

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Many carried signs calling for safe staffing levels and higher wages and better benefits, for example: “Providence saves money, nurses save lives!” and “Patients before profits!” and "It's not about Income, it's about outcomes."

Many said they were exhausted after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has thinned the ranks of bedside nurses due to burnout and retirements. Even though Covid cases and hospitalizations have receded significantly, the hospital has remained busy, given all the patients who had delayed scheduled procedures over the past two years.

The nurses’ contract at Providence St. V expired at the end of 2021 but was extended for a month. Nurses and management came to the bargaining table in February and plan to return to negotiations Thursday.

“Staffing is the No. 1 priority,” said John Smeltzer, an RN and chair of the nurses’ bargaining committee. “Wages are staffing — we want a contract that incentivizes good nurses to work with us.”

Jennifer Burrows, chief executive of Providence St. Vincent, said the hospital has struggled at times to maintain sufficient staffing levels, but not on a regular basis. The hospital scores high in patient satisfaction, she said.

“I want to dispel the myth from the picket line that there are not enough nurses to take adequate care of patients,” Burrows said. “That’s not true. A lot of people have put off care during Covid, and I don’t want them thinking it isn’t safe to go to the hospital.”

As for staffing levels, Burrows said the hospital has tried to mitigate the workforce shortage with travel nurses and National Guard, as well as an extra shift bonus of $500.

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She said Providence has offered a 9.3% increase in year one, 2.5% in year two and 2% in year three to stay competitive with other health systems.

“Our team is less far apart than what you hear on the picket line,” she said. “We’ve got a very competitive benefit program. That’s something we’ve been talking a lot about at the table. We may have an opportunity to do a better job assisting people. Maybe some people are in the wrong plans for their type of situation."

Providence St. V is among the six Providence hospitals in Oregon that are currently in contract negotiations with ONA or will be after contracts expire later this year.

Read the full story at the Portland Business Journal.

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