A nurse cares for a ICU patient in 2021 at a Providence medical Center in Southern California.
A nurse cares for a ICU patient in 2021 at a Providence medical Center in Southern California. Mario Tama / Staff

Providence Health nurses will hold an informational picket outside of the Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Southwest Portland on Tuesday evening as labor contract negotiations between the state’s largest healthcare system and thousands of Oregon nurses intensify.

Labor contracts for some 4,000 nurses at seven Providence medical centers in Oregon have either expired or will expire by the end of this year, setting up another marquee series of contract fights for the state’s frontline healthcare workers following the threat of a Kaiser Permanente workers strike last November.

Providence nurses, represented by the longstanding Oregon Nurses Association (ONA), are not yet at the point of striking. But nurses are taking steps to rally community support as they seek improved pay, benefits, and safety measures with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic still challenging hospitals across the country.

The stakes are already high. Nurses at Providence’s St. Vincent and Willamette Falls medical centers have been working without a labor contract since the end of last year, while the nurses at the Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital will see their contract expire later this month.

Providence nurses’ concerns mirror those voiced by Kaiser healthcare workers last year: their work is undervalued by their companies, their hospitals are in the midst of staffing crises, and, absent an improved contract, those crises will only deepen.

“Morale is [at] rock bottom,” said Jamie Aguilar, a Providence triage nurse and bargaining unit chair. “Every nurse that I’ve talked to has thought about leaving Providence in the last week, in the last month, in the last year, in the last two years. They’re not thinking about leaving nursing altogether—they’re thinking about leaving Providence.”

Staffing issues at Providence are already a major concern. Just last month, Oregon National Guardsman had to assist the overwhelmed Providence Medford Medical Center.

ONA nurses want to see a reporting process for unsafe staffing levels and staffing law language in their next contracts. They also want to address the root of the staffing problem with pay raises, a less expensive improved healthcare plan, and improved paid leave policies—particularly to cover COVID-19 exposures.

Providence itself acknowledges the staffing issue, despite not having reached an agreement with the nurses union thus far on an avenue to address it.

“The country simply does not have enough trained professionals to meet health care needs in the U.S. Providence St. Vincent is not immune from this national crisis,” said Providence spokesperson Lisa Helderop. “Our proposals continue to reflect the concerns we’ve heard from Providence St. Vincent nurses at the bargaining table. We encourage ONA to stop the media stunts and return to bargaining.”

ONA believes that Providence has to address the staffing crisis head on, even to ensure in the short-term that nurses can have meals and breaks while working and not be overloaded with an excessive number of patients.

“There’s fewer nurses to care for more patients who are sicker than ever before,” said ONA communications manager Kevin Mealey. “That’s a recipe for disaster. So... there’s 4,000 nurses eager to get fair contracts that allow them to recruit and retain providers, because we need them now, and the problem only gets more urgent in the future.”

Providence St. Joseph Health, the nonprofit healthcare provider that operates 51 hospitals in seven states, has suffered financially to an extent during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the organization has made up for those losses with injections of federal stimulus money and strong returns on its sizable investment portfolio.

Over the period of 2021 in which the system posted a $405 million operating loss, Providence’s investment portfolio grew by nearly $1 billion to a total of $13 billion.

Helderop acknowledged that the pandemic has placed “unprecedented” demands on nurses and other healthcare providers, and wrote that Providence has spent some $700 million on new, pandemic-related benefits for nurses over the last two years like free COVID-19 testing and sick pay.

But nurses question Providence’s spending priorities and commitment to its longest-tenured employees.

“Providence has paid travel nurses multiple times more than they pay staff nurses, they’ve been offering hire-on bonuses rather than retention bonuses—the union’s been asking for retention bonuses for the last two years, and Providence has not agreed to negotiate retention bonuses,” Aguilar said. “This is well past due.”

Providence wrote that it is offering a sizable 9.3 percent wage increase for nurses, but Aguilar said that current pay scales are substantially behind other area hospitals

“Providence needs to get competitive with the market so they can retain the nurses we have currently,” Aguilar said. “If they don’t offer a competitive wage, then the wound care nurses will leave for better markets.”

Providence nurses have already felt support from the labor movement and its allies in the Portland area broadly, but also directly from Kaiser healthcare workers. Mealey said that he recently received a message from the communications official for the union representing Kaiser workers asking what more they could do to support ONA’s effort.

Mealey said that many nurses see how much corporations like Kaiser and Providence are making and don’t see that affluence reflected back to them in their workplaces. “You go to get your five cent mask and it’s not there,” Mealey said. “That does make you ask—where are profits going?”

Aguilar said that there has not yet been any discussion of a potential strike, in the hope that Tuesday’s informational picket will send a message about the seriousness of the healthcare workers’ demands.

In the meantime, Providence and ONA’s bargaining teams remain in active negotiations. Bargaining teams for the St. Vincent and Willamette Falls sites have met with Providence representatives a combined 26 times over the last six months, but have yet to reach an agreement.

Further negotiation dates are set for March 17 for the St. Vincent location, late March for the Willamette Falls location, and mid-April for the Milwaukie location.

“We haven’t fully dug out from COVID to assess what is left, but we know Providence and other hospitals will have to show that they value Oregon nurses in order to provide care right now, but also in the future,” Mealey said. “Because it’s only going to get worse in terms of the shortage.”