Oregon Nurses demand a voice in hospital staffing

(GazetteTimes.com) Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center may be heading toward a showdown with its nurses union over a budget-cutting staff reorganization plan announced last week.

In a letter delivered Tuesday afternoon, the Oregon Nurses Association demanded that hospital administrators return to the bargaining table to negotiate over the proposed changes, which would eliminate most part-time positions in many patient care units and put nurses and other personnel on 12-hour shifts.

“The association considers the medical center’s proposals and actions to constitute a serious unfair labor practice,” the four-page letter states.

“The medical center seems to be repudiating the contract by proceeding with these comprehensive unilateral changes, while stating that it does not need to bargain over the proposals prior to implementation.”

At the same time, nurses at Good Samaritan filed a formal grievance with the union. In its letter to hospital executives, the association said it would be willing to hold off on adjudicating the grievance while negotiations were taking place.

The association’s demands came a day after a similar move by the Service Employees International Union.

Good Sam CEO Steve Jasperson said Tuesday that he was willing to discuss details of how the reorganization would play out but that the work force reductions and scheduling changes themselves are non-negotiable.

“We’re not reopening the contracts for negotiations. We’re not negotiating with them what the economics for the decisions are. We’re negotiating the process for the layoffs,” Jasperson said.

“If they have any suggestions as to some reductions we can make in a short period of time, we’re willing to listen to that,” he added. “But we’re not willing to reopen negotiations.”

In the meantime, Jasperson said, the hospital will move forward with the reorganization plan, which aims to eliminate the equivalent of 35 full-time positions.

Hundreds of hospital employees will have to reapply for their jobs when the new schedules are posted, which is expected to happen sometime next week.

The Nurses Association insists those kinds of scheduling changes can only be made at the bargaining table.

“We believe there are numerous violations of the contract,” union spokesman Scott Palmer said. “This one-size-fits-all 12-hour shift plan is simply not feasible, and it’s not reasonable, and it violates all models for best patient care.”

Good Samaritan executives say the hospital has lost $10 million since the start of the year because of declining Medicare, Oregon Health Plan and private insurance reimbursements combined with rising rates of charity care. They say the shift changes would save the hospital $2.5 million a year while maintaining current nurse-to-patient ratios.

The unions maintain the changes would disrupt employees’ lives, sacrifice staffing flexibility and potentially put patients at risk.

The Nurses Association represents 495 nurses at Good Sam while the SEIU covers 375 support workers, from food service staff to nursing unit secretaries. The nurses union is about 10 months into a two-year agreement with Samaritan, and the support workers just signed a three-year deal last month.

According to Palmer, only two hospitals in the state — one in Ontario, the other in Baker City — operate with predominantly 12-hour nursing shifts, and those schedules were developed in negotiations with the union.

The Nurses Association also represents nurses at Samaritan Health Services’ other mid-valley hospitals in Albany and Lebanon, and Palmer said the union would resist any effort to put those facilities on 12-hour shifts without bargaining.

“The nurses there are watching this like hawks,” he said.