By Don McIntosh
A group of 170 hospital support workers at Providence Milwaukie Hospital ratified their first-ever union contract May 7. It’s a three-year agreement, and it took almost three years to get it. It was June 14, 2018 when workers there voted 92-54 to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49. The unit includes housekeepers, food service workers, certified nursing assistants, phlebotomists, and patient admission representatives at Providence Milwaukie, a 77-bed acute care hospital.
Julie Schafer, health unit coordinator in the Providence Milwaukie medical surgical unit, says the union didn’t get an acceptable offer from Providence until after members voted to authorize a strike April 20-21. A 12-year employee of the hospital, Schafer and the other volunteer members of the union bargaining team endured 32 negotiating sessions before the deal was reached, including a final 20-hour marathon session that lasted from 8 a.m. May 3 to 5 a.m. the next morning. Schafer said they didn’t move to strike sooner because workers did not want to strike during the pandemic.
The unit’s first collective bargaining agreement provides raises of 2%, 1.5%, and 1.5% in May 2021, 2022, and 2023. But it also continues the hospital’s discretion to base pay rates on management’s judgment of employees’ “merit.” That’s rare for union contracts. Wages will rise more than the annual minimums though, union spokesperson Tara Noftsier explained, because of other pay features in the contract.
The agreement establishes a convoluted set of pay ranges— for each job classification, when an employee starts and when they reach the 5, 15, and 20 year mark, the contract specifies minimum, mid-range, and maximum pay. Because many workers are making less than the minimums in that scale, they’ll get raises. Local 49 estimates wages will rise on average 13% over the course of the three years, or just under 4.5% a year. Some will see greater improvements, and some smaller. The biggest increases will go to the least-paid workers, including housekeepers, whose starting wage rose from $14.03 to $15.30 an hour.
The contract also requires the hospital to give workers their schedules at least two weeks in advance (some previous schedule postings had said, “check daily.”) And it includes certain basic union rights, like the right to have a union steward present during disciplinary meetings with a manager, and the requirement that all discipline be grounded on “just cause.”
Portland-based Local 49 represents 10,000 health care workers at Kaiser Permanente, Legacy Health Systems, Peacehealth, and several smaller hospitals. Providence, based in Renton, Washington, is a chain of 51 hospitals in six states.
At every stage, Providence fought to frustrate and oppose the union. As bargaining dragged on and on, Providence said it couldn’t give interim raises to union members, but it relented after Local 49 complained to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
“I think part of them dragging it out was really trying to break our willpower and break our desire to have a contract,” said housekeeper Melissa O’Neil, a 17-year Providence Milwaukie employee and member of the union bargaining team. “But it didn’t work.”
Though nurses at the hospital are represented by Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (OFNHP), this was the first unit of hospital support workers at Providence to unionize with Local 49, and it’s still the only one. In December 2018, a similar group of 800 workers at Providence Portland Medical Center voted by a razor-thin margin to unionize, but Trump appointees to the NLRB overturned that result last July by reinterpreting a single smudged ballot.
“It doesn’t matter how small you are,” O’Neil said. “You know, David fought Goliath and won, and so did we.”