Medical techs at St. Charles Bend are threatening to strike if hospital administrators are unwilling to meet union contract terms. The strike could put further strain on a medical system already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.
The strike will begin March 4 if the two parties fail to resolve matters related to pay and benefits, according to Samuel Potter, a spokesman for the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. The decision to strike comes after a year of negotiations between the medical techs and St. Charles management. The techs are seeking to resolve the differences as part of their first union contract.
“Management’s unwillingness to settle the contract has pushed these essential healthcare employees to take a stand so that they can gain living wages and a voice on the job,” according to a statement released by the federation.
The medical techs voted 94% in favor of authorizing the strike and sent a 10-day notice warning of the impending walkout, according to the statement.
St. Charles Health System described the move as “disappointing,” in a press release, especially while it is coping with COVID-19 patients and large-scale community vaccination clinics.
“While this strike notice cannot slow our efforts to meet these critical community needs, it just adds new — and unnecessary — challenges when our community needs us most,” said Aaron Adams, president of St. Charles Bend and Redmond.
The federation represents about 150 technical employees at the St. Charles campus in Bend.
The strike would only affect technical employees at the St. Charles Bend hospital campus. It would have no impact on the health care system’s other hospitals or clinics in Redmond, Madras and Prineville.
“This is our last resort to improve the conditions at the hospital,” said DeeDee Schumacher, an ultrasound technologist who has worked at St. Charles for 40 years. “We don’t want to strike and would rather continue working in our community, so we hope the hospital will avert this by settling a fair contract.”
Strikes in the health care field rarely last longer than a week, said Potter, primarily due to the high cost of temporary replacement healthcare workers. Strikes by technologists are uncommon he added.
“We have only been able to identify a single prior example in the last few decades in the United States. That strike lasted only two days,” said Potter.
The St. Charles medical techs unionized in 2019 and have since been bargaining for their first contract. Pay and working conditions are the primary issues of contention. The federation also alleges that the hospital broke federal labor laws by changing pay for some health care professionals.
The federation said hospital management subsequently agreed to mediation, but has delayed establishing timely bargaining dates. It alleges that more than 90% of medical techs are being underpaid and the hospital’s proposals fall short of adequate wage adjustments.
“Since September of last year, we have been offering to meet on nights, weekends and even holidays in order to complete this contract in a timely manner,” said Potter. “The administration of St. Charles refused every such offer and on December 3rd walked away from the table entirely. Our members are no longer willing to let St. Charles set the schedule.”
Potter said the medical techs are prepared to remain on strike as many days as necessary “to secure the recognition, respect and fair treatment they deserve.”
St. Charles insists the on-again-off-again talks had been going in the right direction and the timing of the notice is not consistent with the latest agreements. As recently as Saturday, the two parties were in discussion with a federal mediator to set new dates for bargaining, the hospital said in a statement.
Rebecca Berry, vice president of human resources for St. Charles Health System, blames the federation for dropping out of the bargaining.
“If (the Federation) believes that progress is not being made, it needs to look at its own decisions,” said Berry.
March 10 had already been scheduled for another bargaining session, said a St. Charles spokesperson. A federal mediator was slated to be part of the talks.
St. Charles leaders say they are concerned that the federation is “bargaining in bad faith,” and they plan to file an unfair labor practice charge of bad-faith bargaining with the National Labor Relations Board.
“We reiterate our disappointment in the Federation’s decision,” said Berry. “St. Charles will take all necessary steps to ensure that care for our community continues in a safe and uninterrupted way.”