Embattled OHSU faces possible strike of 7,400 health and support workers

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Already deep into what its top executive calls “crisis mode” over financial losses, Oregon Health & Science University now has another problem: About 7,400 respiratory therapists, pharmacists, and other employees on Friday voted overwhelmingly to authorize their bargaining teams to call a strike.

About 94% of workers represented by AFSCME Local 328 voted to authorize the strike. The two sides have been negotiating since February.

“Our members are fed up,” said Michael Stewart, a medical assistant in OHSU’s internal-medicine clinic and president of Local 328. “For the last two-plus years, we have sacrificed to keep our community alive and OHSU functioning. We have given so much through the pandemic and we are demanding OHSU make investments in their employees to address staffing, retention and the high cost of living.”

Workers are asking for an across-the-board wage hike of 7%-8% in each of the next three years. Currently, members of Local 328 make anywhere from $15 to $70 per hour.

A strike is not a sure thing. The union is required to give OHSU 10 days notice before a strike could begin.

The strike vote comes just as OHSU management has undertaken a plan to cut costs in the face of large losses. The institution lost $77 million through the first 11 months of its 2022 fiscal year.

The losses stem from the same set of pandemic-related circumstances that have put many other hospitals in Oregon in a similar financial bind. Exhausted by the pandemic, nurses and a slew of other caregivers have quit or left for less stressful positions. That has forced OHSU and other hospitals to pay enormous premiums for temp workers.

The normal flow of patients – from emergency room to hospital bed to skilled nursing facility for rehab – has been completely gummed up by the staff shortages.

The bottom line for OHSU is not pleasant. The OHSU board is now considering a slimmed down fiscal 2023 budget. The largest of those proposed trims is a $70 million reduction in the capital budget from $180 million to $110 million.

“We will do everything we can to avoid large scale layoffs,” OHSU President Danny Jacobs said.

In a statement, OHSU said it is hopeful a strike can be averted and the two sides can reach agreement on a “new contract that reflects our shared goals of a safe, healthy and respectful working environment.”

AFSCME Local 328 represents employees in over 300 job classifications, including environmental-services technicians, respiratory therapists, financial analysts, lab animal technicians, chaplains, web engineers and pharmacists.

— Jeff Manning; [email protected]; 503-294-7606

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