By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS
More than 150 medical techs at St. Charles in Bend walked off the job Thursday morning, following through on a promise to strike over unfair wages and “disrespect” from hospital management.
It’s the first St. Charles employee strike since nurses walked out in 1980.
“This is a sad day,” said Aaron Adams, president of St. Charles Bend. “We want to come to an agreement with our caregivers and have attempted to do so repeatedly. But we also have an important job to do and responsibility to our community. Our focus is taking care of our patients.”
The hospital said it provided another proposal to the union through a federal mediator late Wednesday, but the union rejected it.
Samuel Potter, a union organizer with the Oregon Federation of Nursing and Health Professionals, said the strike is “open-ended” and will depend “on management’s willingness to settle the contract and bring these workers back to the hospital.”
This morning at 8 a.m., some members of the OFNHP union walked out on strike. Skilled replacement workers have taken their place and we want you to know that our doors remain open to care for our community. As always, we are here for you.#union #strike
— St. Charles (@STCHealth) March 4, 2021
St. Charles and the union have been negotiating a first contract for more than a year.
One of the roadblocks in the negotiations: predictable yearly payscale increases in subsequent years of the contract.
St. Charles’s offer for the first year of a contract for medical technicians is an average hourly wage of $41 which translates to an average salary of $87,000. It appears both sides are OK with that.
But both sides have acknowledged they’re stuck on years 2-5 of a proposed contract.
“They are unwilling to consider planned yearly increases of any size, nor are they willing to align pay with experience,” Potter said. “They have proposed that they want to maintain unilateral control over all future wage increases and placements.”
Potter said the hospital’s pay scales are arbitrary, with some 30-year employees making less than new hires.
“It’s true that these workers are making far less than fair market value in the Pacific Northwest, but the ability to plan for their future and know what they will be paid is far more valuable,” he said. “Some of these folks haven’t had raises in more than 5 years.”
The union gave the hospital a 10-day strike notice late last month and the two sides haven’t met since then.
“St. Charles has turned down our offers to bargain every single day over the We have an unconditional offer to meet any time, day or night, and we have in fact sent proposals to St. Charles in the hopes that they return to negotiations,” Potter said. “Unfortunately, they took the hardline position last Monday that they weren’t going to negotiate during the notice period unless we completely abandoned the strike.
Adams said the union was negotiating in bad faith because the notice didn’t give the hospital enough time to both work out a new deal and make the necessary plans for a walkout.
The hospital meanwhile has contracted with replacement workers to take over during the strike.
St. Charles hoped to get the union back to the bargaining table this week – but only if they backed off the plans to strike.
A lawsuit filed by the hospital this week to stop the strike was thrown out in federal court.
The issue is being considered now by the National Labor Relations Board, but a decision on the two unfair labor practice claims isn’t expected until later this month.
On Wednesday, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley said from Washington, D.C. that his office had reached out to both sides to encourage them to meet and come to fair agreement.
Thursday, he weighed in with a post on Facebook.
“Techs at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend make a great case that they are being underpaid in a high-cost world,” he wrote. “They have put their lives on the line in the last year for the benefit of the whole community. I strongly support their efforts to organize with OFNHP – AFT Local 5017 for a fair, multiyear contract that recognizes their skills and contributions to health of community.”
The two sides aren’t expected to sit down again until they meet with a federal mediator on March 10th.
Adams said a few specialty services will not be available during the strike, but time-sensitive and urgent services will continue with replacement workers.