▶️ Barring last minute agreement, St. Charles medical techs to strike Thursday

A strike by medical techs at St. Charles on Thursday appears all but certain now after the two sides couldn’t agree on a plan to meet with a federal mediator and discuss a labor contract.

In a statement Wednesday, the hospital said it made an effort to move forward with the negotiations on a first-time contact with the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals on Tuesday, inviting them to the bargaining table with a federal mediator Wednesday if the union would revoke its strike notice. 

The union was unwilling to do so, the hospital said.

“We simply don’t have the resources to focus on bargaining a new contract while we are actively preparing for a strike of our technical workforce,” said Aaron Adams, president of St. Charles Bend. “Our top priority must be ensuring we have replacement workers here to care for our community.” 

Nearly 160 medical techs – including ultrasound and radiology technicians and therapists – plan to strike Thursday beginning at 8 a.m.

The union, however, says it’s still trying to negotiate a settlement with management, “and despite management’s comments, the hospital has been unwilling to negotiate.”

“The hospital is forcing a strike that does not need to happen,” says DeeDee Schumacher, a 40-year employee at St. Charles. “Instead, we would love to settle this contract and remain caring for the patients we love. But since St. Charles has been unwilling to show us the basic respect we deserve, we have no other choice. By going on strike we remind the hospital that we matter.”

Samuel Potter, an organizer with the OFNHP, said the hospital is only willing to negotiate if the union workers cancel the planned strike, which is an infringement on their labor rights.

“Right now, the union workers are open to negotiating every hour up until tomorrow’s walkout and we hope that St. Charles will work with us so we can avert the strike together,” Potter said in a statement.

The two sides are at odds over an initial contract and “fair wage and working conditions” according to the union. Negotiations have lasted for more than a year.

The union gave the hospital a 10-day notice of a strike late last month, but hospital officials then said that wasn’t enough time to plan for negotiations and for the possibility of a walk-out.

St. Charles has said it has entered a contract with replacement workers to ensure patient care isn’t compromised during the walkout.

From Washington, D.C., Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley told Central Oregon Daily News his office has reached out to both sides to be very clear in what they’re seeking and “figure out an answer that’s fair to the hospital but very fair to our frontline healthcare workers who have been putting themselves at such risk during this pandemic year.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday a federal judge denied St. Charles Health System’s injunction request to delay the strike.

According to a statement from the hospital, the judge said the court did not have the authority to issue the injunction because the issue is being heard by the National Labor Relations Board.

“We had hoped the courts would give us additional time to get back to the bargaining table with the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals so that we could reach a contract agreement without an impact to our patients,” Adams said. “We are disappointed in the outcome but will continue our preparations to hire and onboard replacement workers and minimize disruptions to our patients and community.”

The hospital has filed two unfair labor practice claims against the union saying the strike notice was illegal and they were not bargaining in good faith. A decision from the NLRB isn’t expected until the end of the month.

In a statement, the hospital said the timing of the strike is particularly challenging as St. Charles continues to suffer incredible financial losses due to COVID-19.

The statement continues below:

The health system ended 2020 about $21 million below its financial targets even after Cares Act relief funding – mostly because of extended periods of time where surgeries were canceled due to state restrictions or the high volume of COVID-19 patients, the statement said.

St. Charles is experiencing a difficult start to 2021 as well after posting an operating loss of $4.9 million in the month of January. 

St. Charles is not alone. The American Hospital Association estimates that hospitals lost approximately $323 billion in revenue in 2020.  

“While many other health systems laid off staff early on in the pandemic, we made sure our caregivers continued to receive full paychecks even when we didn’t have patients for them to care for,” Adams said. “We have put our caregivers and our patients first throughout this pandemic, which has been hard on us financially. It is unfortunate that OFNHP is now adding to that financial strain.” 

According to the hospital only two core issues remain on the table at this time: compensation and union security.  

The teams have agreed upon wages for the first year of the contract.

Under this agreement, the average hourly wage for techs in the bargaining unit will be $41.94 per hour once the contract is ratified. This equates to an annual salary of $87,000 a year for a full-time equivalent position, not including overtime, premium pay, shift differentials and other benefits.  

As for union security, St. Charles has asked for an open shop in order to give its caregivers a choice on whether they are members of the union. The union has requested a closed shop, meaning all St. Charles technical employees represented by OFNHP could lose their jobs if they decide they do not want to join the union.  

“We believe in the rights of our caregivers who are interested in union representation to be represented,” Adams said. “But we also believe those who are not interested should have the same right to decline union membership.” 

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