Nearly 2,000 Providence nurses in Portland and Seaside have launched the region’s first nurses’ strike in more than two decades.

Nurses at Providence Portland Medical Center began their strike at 5 a.m. Monday. Two hours later, nurses from Providence Seaside on the coast and nurses working on a home health and hospice unit run by the Providence Health System joined them. 

The strike, which is set to last until Saturday morning, is a milestone: the first time Providence nurses in Oregon have ever walked off their jobs and the first nurses’ strike in the state since nurses at Oregon Health & Science University struck in December of 2001.

But this week’s strike was also a long time coming. Nurses in Portland and across the country have struggled in recent years with staffing shortages caused by burnout and low pay—issues that nurses say are particularly acute at Providence, where the roots of the current crisis precede even the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We knew that there was a staffing crisis coming six, seven, eight years ago—and we communicated at that point in time,” Richard Botterill, an emergency room nurse in Portland and bargaining team chair, said. “We knew that to attract nurses and to retain nurses, we needed to have a really good package for nurses when they come to our hospital.” 

According to Botterill and the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA), the union that represents Providence nurses, the healthcare group has thus far not been willing to offer a competitive package of pay and benefits. Providence did not respond to a request for comment on this story. 

The union wants improved wages, better paid time off and sick leave policies, an improved healthcare package, and safe staffing commitments—inventions that, they believe, will allow Providence to attract more nurses and alleviate the staffing crisis they see straining the system at their hospitals. 

“I can’t remember the last time we had a full staffing complement,” Botterill said. “I worked yesterday, I think we were maybe four or five nurses down… and that’s not unusual—both on days and especially on nights.”

Those kinds of staffing issues can have a serious impact on the care patients receive at Providence facilities.

“When we’re short staffed in ED, we can’t see patients as fast as we would like to because we don't have the nurses to take care of the capacity,” Christy Bernier, a nurse in the emergency department in Portland, said. “So then it slows things down, so then you have patients sitting in the waiting room—and if they’re coming in for pretty significant reasons, that's delaying their care.”

Botterill said the hospital is routinely turning to travel and contract nurses to fill staffing shortages and paying those nurses significantly more money per shift than full-time employees make—a paradigm that has caused resentment among staff nurses.

For Botterill, it’s indicative of a broader level of disregard at Providence for veteran nurses who are responsible not just for working their shifts but also for training younger staff members and helping to shape the culture of nursing at the hospital. 

Botterill said that while Providence and the union are in broad agreement over the salary structure for newer nurses, they remain far apart on the salary structure for nurses who have worked at the hospital for 25 years or more. 

“I think that from their perspective, if you can get nurses that have little experience and are fresh out of school, obviously they are going to be a lot less expensive in terms of salary structure than the nurses that have been around for a while and have the background and experience to provide the care we want to provide to the community,” Botterill said. 

Bernier, who has worked at Providence since 2002, said she has seen her wages and benefits decay relative to inflation and what other nurses are receiving in recent years. 

“It’s just so disheartening to watch our benefits erode over time and then things being taken away each time we negotiate, and I think that’s why our nurses are standing up—because we’re tired.” Bernier said. “We’re tired of more [being] taken away from us. We don’t have the benefits to compare to anybody in the region, so we don’t retain our nurses.”

That feeling that Providence nurses are being under-compensated relative to other nurses in the region is one of the major factors driving the strike, especially at a time when Providence reportedly has billions of dollars in cash reserves. The health system posted an operating revenue of $27.3 billion in 2022, though that number was slightly less than its operating expenses.

The Lund Report reported in May that Providence has offered a 9.5 percent raise for nurses during the first year of the contract and further 3 and 2.5 percent raises the following years. The two sides remain at odds over paid time off as well as the length of the contract itself.  The health system wants to sign a three-year contract, while ONA nurses want a two-year deal. 

It’s unclear at this point when the two sides will meet again at the bargaining table. Botterill said that Providence officials have indicated that they are unwilling to meet again this week while the nurses are on strike, meaning that the soonest they could reconvene at the bargaining table would be this weekend. The two sides last met on Wednesday of last week. 

Both Bernier and Botterill said they’ve been heartened by the support they’ve received since beginning their strike—including from other unions, like the Teamsters, who are not crossing their picket line. They’ve also been in contact with workers on the bargaining teams at OHSU and Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene.  

Nurses have said that people should continue to access care as needed at Providence facilities during the strike. Providence’s Portland facility remains open with temporary nurses, though it has temporarily closed its NICU and is advising the public that there could be longer-than-usual wait times in the emergency department. 

“I don’t feel like we're asking a lot,” Bernier said. “What we’re asking for is to be comparable to other hospitals in the city—not more.”