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St. Charles Bend nurses vote overwhelmingly to authorize strike; hospital says it expects to reach a contract in time

(Update: Adding video)

Talks set for this week; ONA would have to give 10 days' notice of walkout

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) - Nearly 1,000 nurses represented by the Oregon Nurses Association at St. Charles Bend have voted overwhelmingly and in record-breaking numbers to authorize a strike at the hospital, the union announced Monday. A hospital official called it "no surprise" and expressed confidence a deal can be reached.

"St. Charles is a private, multimillion-dollar corporation that has a monopoly over Central Oregonians’ health care," the ONA news release stated, noting that it owns four hospitals and nearly 50 specialty clinics and is the region’s largest health care provider and largest employer. 

The vote, which closed at 5 p.m. on Sunday, "saw unprecedented participation from nearly every one of the 962 nurses employed by St. Charles who were eligible to vote. The vote to authorize a strike was all but unanimous," the union said in its announcement.

 St. Charles Bend provided a response from Julie Ostrom, senior nursing leader and member of the bargaining team for St. Charles Health System:

“This vote is not a surprise and is a fairly standard step in the negotiation process. This vote does not mean a strike will occur and we continue to be committed to reaching a contract agreement in the coming weeks.

"While ONA’s strike tactics are not unexpected, we believe they are detrimental to our shared goals of recruiting and retaining quality nursing staff.

"We have every intention of coming to an agreement and we are looking forward to two productive bargaining sessions this week, followed by four additional sessions in June. In the unlikely event we are unable to reach an agreement, we want to reassure our patients and community that our doors will remain open to provide care.”

"At St. Charles, we have made numerous strides in our goals of recruiting and retaining our nursing staff. A recent $5 hourly wage increase for all bedside nurses puts St. Charles wages among the highest in the state (for an average annual full-time base salary of $108,000 a year, not including premium and overtime pay). ONA’s data analyst confirmed in recent bargaining that our nurses are currently among the highest paid in the state and nurses in Oregon are among the top paid in the nation. 

"We can see that these efforts for recruitment and retention are working. Turnover among our Bend nursing staff is declining and in 2022 St. Charles Bend reported its lowest turnover rate in three years," Ostrom concluded.

Here is the rest of the ONA news release:

“Nurses at St. Charles have spoken clearly and loudly in one voice,” said Erin Harrington, a nurse in the ICU and chair of the St. Charles Bargaining Unit. “Management has failed to take our contract negotiations seriously. They have failed to come to the table with reasonable offers and have failed to listen to the serious concerns of their nursing staff. The truly overwhelming results from this strike authorization vote are proof that nurses are standing together for the benefit of our patients, our community, and our hospital.”

Nurses have been engaged in contract negotiations since December and have met in person with management 14 times. Nurses have been focused on a few crucial issues, including improving working conditions so that St. Charles can recruit new nurses and stop the hospital’s nurse retention failures of the past few years, ensuring nurses have access to affordable health care, and providing competitive wages that will retain existing nurse staff and increase recruitment of new nurses. 

“St. Charles has been hemorrhaging nurses for years,” said Joel Hernandez, a nurse in the OR at St. Charles, member of the ONA St. Charles bargaining team, and Vice-President of the ONA Board of Directors. “Since 2018, 549 nurses have left the bedside at St. Charles due to unsafe working conditions, including unsafe staffing levels. It is simply unsustainable. Something must be done to improve conditions so that we can stop bleeding staff and recruit new nurses to replace the ones who have left.”

Recent press coverage indicates that St. Charles is recruiting for more than 300 nursing positions and is closing beds due to staff shortages. Nurses also reported missing more than 42,000 legally required rest and meal breaks during 2022 due to unsafe staffing levels.

Nurse leaders at St. Charles will hold contract negotiations with management on Tuesday and Wednesday. Nurses will also be holding meetings throughout the week to begin strike preparations.

When a strike is called, ONA will give St. Charles a 10-day notice to allow management adequate time to cease admissions and transfer patients or to reach a fair agreement with nurses and avert a work stoppage. 

“Strikes are always a last resort, never a first resort. But the unsafe working conditions at St. Charles Medical Center have become so serious, and the lack of action from management so glaring, that the nurses have been forced to issue a code red,” said Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), ONA’s national union.

“Patient care, and the rights of the workers who help them, is at stake. The 1.7 million members of the American Federation of Teachers have your back. We are with you in this fight for a fair contract and we will be with you, in solidarity, for as long as it takes to win.”

ONA has launched as an online resource for community members where they can learn more about contract issues, get information on the implications of a strike, and learn how to support nurses in their fight for a fair contract.

“Nurses are the heart and soul of health care,” said state Rep. Jason Kropf, who represents Bend in the Oregon Legislature. “They put themselves on the line every day to care for us. Now, it’s our time to show we care for them. I’m proud to stand with ONA nurses as they vote to strike at St. Charles Bend. I call on St. Charles’ executives to reach a fair contract agreement that will allow our community to recruit and retain the nurses we desperately need. Our community deserves quality health care, and our nurses deserve the support to provide it.”

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