SPRINGFIELD – Hospital workers rallied on the sidewalk outside Springfield’s Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend late Monday afternoon. Fifty came out — and braved the drizzly weather — to protest short staffing and low wages.
Marching to a steady drumbeat, picketing caregivers marched with signs and chanted, “The people, united, will never be divided.”
The union represents 1,500 front-line nurses at Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield and Sacred Heart Medical Center University District in Eugene, and Sacred Heart Home Care Services. PeaceHealth, a nonprofit health system based in Vancouver, Wash., has medical centers, critical access hospitals and medical clinics in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
“There’s been a slow, steady decline in nursing before Covid,” said Kevin Mealy, communications manager for the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA). “So now, we’re looking at a situation where nurses can no longer just push themselves harder to cover the gaps — they’re picking up all the extra shifts and overtime, but there’s no reinforcements coming.”
Union members contend there are hundreds of vacant nursing positions at Sacred Heart, which can jeopardize patient safety and result in longer wait times and more expensive hospital stays. They are asking PeaceHealth executives to adopt safe staffing standards as part of a fair contract agreement.
Chris Rompala is on the bargaining team for nurses at PeaceHealth; he’s been an employee there for eight years.
“We’re fired up, we’re ready to make changes and we believe this is a necessary change,” he said. “This is necessary in order to bring nurses back into the workforce and we think that changing the culture will influence the quality of care that people are receiving.”
According to the ONA, PeaceHealth Sacred Heart has nearly 300 nurse vacancies, which it says are contributing to longer wait times for patients.
Rompala said hospital caregivers deserve respect and acknowledgment of their value and worth. He added he believes these things can be reflected in a solid, fair labor contract.
Kevyn Paul, who has worked for PeaceHealth University District for 34 years, spoke to the “moral insult” many former and current nurses feel.
“As opposed to burnout, it’s a moral injury,” Paul said. “That’s what happens when nurses who dearly love their profession cannot perform and cannot give the care they want and know is necessary. It’s a continued frustration, knowing you’re going into work unable to give the level of care patients deserve.”
Organizers are reaching the end of their bargaining period with PeaceHealth – their contract is set to expire on April 15. The team headed back into negotiations late Tuesday and Wednesday evening. According to Mealy, during the bargaining “ONA nurses made proposals to improve the community’s care and strengthen recruitment and retention for frontline caregivers including proposing a fair compensation package. PeaceHealth made a proposal to replace Sacred Heart’s local Professional Nurse Advancement Program with its system-wide version. (PNAP is a professional development program).”
No major new agreements were reached. The bargaining team and PeaceHealth leadership will meet again next Wednesday and Thursday.
For Rompala, he’s doubtful safe-staffing ratios will be a part of the final agreement.
“We’ve known for the last 40 years there’s been a nursing crisis coming down the pipeline and the pandemic has really brought that into the spotlight,” he said. “We want to change the environment our nurses are working in every day by providing set ratios and increasing the staff in every unit. We’ve made a proposal at the bargaining table to implement this, and the Medical Center has refused to discuss it with us.”
One bill in the state Legislature, House Bill 2697, would establish nurse-to-patient ratios in certain hospital units in hopes that requiring the state to follow minimum staffing standards would help retain remaining nurses and encourage nursing staff to return to the state workforce.
Hospitals would need to create staffing committees to develop hospital-wide staffing plans required to be submitted to the Oregon Health Authority.
The ratios outlined in the bill are:
• One direct care registered nurse to one patient for emergency department trauma patients, patients in active labor or experiencing complications in the labor and delivery units, and patients in operating rooms.
• One registered nurse to two patients in intensive care units, labor and delivery units for patients not experiencing active labor or complications, and in post-anesthesia care units.
• One nurse to three patients in intermediate care units.
• One nurse to four patients in oncology, cardiac telemetry, pediatric and medical-surgical units. Medical-surgical units will have until 2026 to implement the one-to-four ratio. It will be one to five until then.
As workers in hospital scrubs and green union T-shirts marched and chanted Monday afternoon, Representative Val Hoyle, County Commissioner Heather Buch and Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis huddled up with workers on the picket line to show support and encouragement.
“We are very aware as a public health entity how much you’re worth,” Buch said. “I’ve had my little girl here. I’ve had my family come here in a time of need. Everybody in our community has been touched in one way or another by the work you do. Thank you so much for what you do.”
Rep. Hoyle spoke to work at the federal level to bolster support for safe-staffing ratios — which has been shown to increase patient mortality.
“When you want to take care of patients the way your heart tells you to, well, the data supports it,” Hoyle said. “Right now, we need to make sure we have young people coming into the profession. And so we’re standing with you. We want nurses working here, we don’t want our nurses having to travel out of state in order to get the pay and respect they deserve. We want them right here at home at Sacred Heart.”
Union members and hospital workers continued to carry signs and chant, “What’s this about? Patient care! What’s it all about? Patient care!” The picket and rally lasted until 6 p.m.
“Anger can bring people together. Anger can show the end of injustices that are happening not just to us but to the community — and all our communities,” said Jo Turner, PeaceHealth bargaining team member. “Eugene and Springfield have our own culture and we deserve to have our own culture represented in our medical society here at PeaceHealth. So take that anger and let’s make a better place for nurses here and for our community.”
The statement below is from PeaceHealth management, released prior to the picket:
“ONA’s rally is not a strike nor a refusal to work and will have no impact on the accessibility to or care provided at our facilities. PeaceHealth respects the rights of our caregivers to participate in these kinds of activities as part of ongoing union contract negotiations. We remain deeply committed to our caregivers, and we are proud of the high-quality, compassionate care and service they provide to patients and the community. Our patients and their families can continue to count on us to deliver that care without interruption.”