Update: St. Charles narrowly avoided a strike on June 8 after both parties reached a tentative agreement. Oregon Nurses Association members at the St. Charles campus in Bend will vote to ratify the contract within the next few days.
St. Charles nursing staff gave notice that they'll start striking on June 12 if a contract isn't reached. Nurses at the St. Charles Bend Medical Center made public their intent to strike on June 1, after voting to authorize a strike earlier in the week. The Oregon Nurses Association collected votes from roughly 1,000 nurses between May 16 and 21, and said 96% of its members voted in favor of authorizing a strike.
"St. Charles had said in email communications to their staff, and then press releases, that the threat of a strike action is a common ploy used by nurses to advance contract negotiations," ONA President Tammy Cline said at a press conference. "I want to tell the people of Central Oregon that that is simply not true. A strike is a very, very serious action. And it is one that ONA and the nurses here at St. Charles have taken not very lightly."
St. Charles registered nurses haven't gone on strike in over 40 years, though other health care professionals have engaged in strikes as recently as 2021. The hospital system and ONA have been negotiating for about six months. Bargaining last occurred in 2019, when negotiations lasted for over nine months but never amounted to a strike — though nurses did vote to authorize one. Erin Harrington, an RN and chair of ONA's bargaining team, said the biggest demand is hiring and retaining more nurses. Though she wasn't involved in the last bargaining session, she said the issues in the hospital system have only gotten worse since then.
"We had a lot of issues at that time [in 2019]; they have definitely escalated. We have not been able to recruit, retain, as we once were able to in this area. And because of that the nurses that are left are really struggling. That struggle trickles down to the patient and creates conditions that none of us are comfortable with anymore," Harrington said.
Those conditions result in longer wait times for patients and missed meals and breaks for staff. Nurses and St. Charles were scheduled to meet on June 6 and 7 to continue bargaining, and a federal mediator is being brought in to aid in negotiations. If neither parties reach an agreement, the regional health care hub could be severely impacted in its operations.
"Should the nurses strike, we expect services to be greatly impacted and those impacts will be felt throughout our region. As the only Level Two Trauma Center east of the Cascades in Oregon, we believe a strike will essentially result in disruption of services for multiple counties. While we will do our best to put contingency plans and staffing into place, we also need patients to be prepared for longer wait times, cancellations of planned procedures and an increased need for medical transport hospitals in Portland, Seattle and Boise as a result of the strike," said Iman Simmons, chief operating officer at St. Charles Health System, in a press release.
St. Charles is working on contingency plans that include bringing in temporary replacement workers and potentially shutting down services until departments' staffing returns to normal. The hospital system said they've already bumped up pay by $5 an hour for registered nurses at the Bend campus and is prepared to increase wages by nearly 25% over the span of the three-and-a-half year contract being negotiated, which St. Charles says averages at about $108,000 a year. St. Charles spokespeople also said they're working on recruiting and retaining staff.
"We're offering to significantly increase shift differentials in places like night shifts and our flow pools to make sure that we can attract talented and skilled nurses to join our St. Charles team and fill the gaps where we have the hardest time recruiting," said Julie Ostrom, a senior nursing leader and member of St. Charles' bargaining team. "These are just a few of the many things that we've been discussing at the table over many bargaining sessions and a reflection of some of the key issues and what we've offered."
Simmons said St. Charles has hired 118 RNs for the Bend hospital and has brought in more than 40 from a nurse residency program. Both ONA and St. Charles said they don't wish for a strike to occur, and hope the next bargaining sessions are more productive.
"None of us want to strike, but the nurses at St. Charles believe that taking this action is the only way that our concerns are going to be heard, taken seriously and addressed by St. Charles management," Harrington said.