By Don McIntosh
Just days before 1,100 support workers at four Portland locations were planning to go on strike, Legacy Health Systems reached agreement on two new union contracts with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49.
Ratified by the workers on July 14, the collective bargaining agreements will equalize wage rates across locations, bringing Legacy Emanuel up to the higher wage rates that Legacy has paid at Good Samaritan.
One of the agreements covers about 400 workers at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center in Northwest Portland. The other covers about 700 workers at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in North Portland, plus the nearby Randall Children’s Hospital and Unity Center for Behavioral Health. Each spells out wages, benefits and workplace rights for workers in over a dozen hospital support classifications, including housekeepers, cooks, certified nursing assistants, and patient admission representatives.
The agreements run through June 30, 2026.
Raises in the first year range from 3% to 9% as lower paid workers are brought up to the new unified wage for each job. After that, all workers will get annual across-the-board raises of 3%, 3%, 2.5%, and 2.75% in July of 2022, 2023, 2024, and 2025, respectively. That’s slightly above the previous three-year contract, which raised wages 2.5% a year.
Workers also get annual “step” increases that reward them for sticking around for the first 10 years. And the contracts add a new top step to the pay scale, which kicks in at an employee’s 15th year. That will help the roughly 40% of members who had already reached the top step. The union has been pushing for that 11th step since at least 2014.
The new contracts also raise starting pay for several jobs. Certified nursing assistants will now start at $18.75 an hour, up from $16.75. Customer service workers will start at $16.53, up from $15.20.
Housekeepers at Emanuel are also celebrating a side agreement that will restore their 8-hour workday. Their hours were cut at the beginning of the pandemic to 7.5 hours per day, a roughly $5,000-a-year cut to their pay.
The five-year length of the agreements is unusually long by union standards. Unions tend to prefer more frequent opportunities to win improvements, while employers tend to prefer the greater predictability of longer agreements.
Mike Morrison, assistant director of SEIU Local 49’s Healthcare Division, said Local 49 agreed to the five-year duration in exchange for Legacy agreeing to synchronize the expiration dates of the two contracts. The previous contract at Good Samaritan expired June 30, 2021, while the one covering Emanuel, Randall, and Unity had expired a year earlier. Having the contracts expire the same day will maximize union leverage in the future because a strike would leave Legacy unable to transfer patients to the non-striking hospital.
“Leaving these negotiations with a joint expiration date was the most important thing we could do right now,” Morrison said. “Our members said, ‘We are stronger if we’re together.’ And that’s not a tagline; that’s the reality, and they made that an absolute priority.”
To demonstrate resolve, Local 49 organized strike votes to take place at Good Sam, Emanuel, Randall and Unity simultaneously. Members picketed outside Emanuel once, and outside Unity twice. Inside, they took part in coordinated “union sticker” days and wore “ready to strike” bracelets. After a legally required 10-day strike notice, they were set to walk off July 15.
“I feel like nobody wants to strike unless they really, really have to,” said Sunita Patel, a housekeeper at Legacy Emanuel and member of the Local 49 negotiating team. “We love to work where we work, and we care about our patients. Nobody wants to neglect them.”
It wasn’t easy to get an acceptable agreement out of Legacy, which has a decades-old history of hostility to unions.
Legacy’s anti-union history
In 2005, SEIU had to strike for a day before reaching a deal at Emanuel, and in 2017, members came close to a strike before a settlement was reached. This time, Legacy stopped deducting union dues from members’ paychecks during bargaining.
At least the hospital support workers have a union. Nurses don’t, for the most part. In the mid-2000s, Legacy defeated a four-year effort to unionize among registered nurses. Today Legacy remains the only major Portland-area hospital chain where nurses are non-union.
At Legacy’s Unity Center, nurses joined Oregon Nurses Association in 2019, but they still don’t have a first union contract two years later. The only Legacy facility where union-represented nurses have a contract is its hospital in Silverton, Oregon.
While it spent the last year negotiating to keep down housekeeper wages, Legacy paid its CEO Kathryn Correia over $1.5 million in 2019, the most recent year for which the tax-exempt nonprofit’s IRS returns are publicly available.