Talk of strike clouds contract vote at Tuality Hospital

Some nurses say they're willing to take to the streets for better pay

Tuality Healthcare nurses will vote on a new contract on Thursday, Jan. 24, but talk of a strike is clouding the air at the Hillsboro hospital.

Hospital administrators have been negotiating a new contract with the Oregon Nurses Association since Oct. 22. Both sides have brokered a new three-year employment pact that gives some concessions to the 267 nurses at Tuality, some of whom cover shifts at Tuality Forest Grove Hospital.

But Pat Brandel, a nurse who's worked at Tuality for 15 years, says this round of negotiations is the most contentious she's seen, with widespread talk of a strike in the nursing ranks.

Although fewer than half of Tuality's nurses pay union dues, all can vote Thursday. If a majority rejects the proposed contract, the union bargaining team could authorize a strike.

If a strike does occur, the Forest Grove Hospital won't be affected, since the regular nursing staff there are not covered by the union contract.

Brandel said nurses sought a guaranteed cost-of-living increase throughout the three-year contract, and were disappointed by the 4 percent raise brokered through mediation. She said the nurses also wanted changes to health care coverage.

The hospital has struggled to retain young nurses, Brandel said. And, she noted, with Providence Health and Services and Kaiser Permanente announcing plans for new health care facilities in the Hillsboro area, ongoing staff shortages could compromise patient care.

'Without some way of getting the nurses in here and retaining them here, the safety of patients is going downhill,' said Brandel, who plans to vote against the contract Thursday. 'My main concern is that our patient care is just frightening,' Brandel said.

Elizabeth Maisel, another Tuality nurse, says she will likely vote for the contract on Thursday, despite some misgivings.

'I think in the long run it's going to hurt the nurses more than the management but I think the nurses are more at the point that they want to make a point than anything else,' Maisel said.

Staffing shortages

Maisel said that staffing shortages within the hospital have made it difficult for nurses to get time off for continuing education courses, which she and Brandel say are vital.

'How are you going to keep your nurses safe and well-educated if they're not going to school?' Brandel asked.

A nursing strike hasn't happened at Tuality since the 1970s, but according to Brandel and Maisel it's a real possibility now.

Scott Palmer, spokesman for the Oregon Nursing Association, says that the union bargaining team is recommending a yes vote on the contract.

He said that the union has held about nine negotiation sessions with the hospital, and that relations were at times contentious but not unusually so.

Brian Costa, a spokesman for Tuality Healthcare, declined to comment on the specific concerns of the nurses, but reiterated that management is hopeful that a positive agreement can come out of the negotiations.

'The real point is that Tuality's organizational goals in 2008 include a number of new initiatives to improve patient care and provide more services to meet the community need,' Costa said. 'Management is interested in bringing the process to a successful end so everybody can work together toward completing our goals.'