Portland, Ore.As the nursing strike continues, mixed messages and false accusations have muddied the truth about negotiations between OHSU and the Oregon Nurses Association. The following offers clarification of the facts surrounding the strike.
Here's what the OHSU nursing strike is and isn't about.
It's not about staffing.
Striking nurses say they walked off the job because they're sick of working long hours in overflowing hospitals. Most of OHSU's 1,000 full and part-time nurses work 28 to 36 hours per week. Nurses have requested twelve hour shifts so they can have more days off. Management agrees this schedule helps ensure nurses get rest between work assignments.
The union claims OHSU nurses are intimidated to say no to overtime requests. In the more than two million hours nurses worked last year, they collectively worked about 600 hours of mandatory overtime, most of which occurred on two particularly busy weekends for Portland hospitals. OHSU nurses are always paid extra -- either time-and-a-half or double -- to work overtime.
Either these concerns are the issues for a fringe few, or the union is not adequately representing its members. During recent contract proposals, the ONA/AFL-CIO never asked OHSU for staffing changes. The ONA's demands have always been about money.
It's not about patient safety.
Hospital managers adjust staffing constantly based on the number of patients and the severity of their illnesses. OHSU would never compromise patient care for any reason. That's why, when union nurses decided to strike, OHSU hired enough licensed professional replacement nurses to ensure safe, quality care. We also reduced our patient load to that which we could staff adequately.
It's not about earning a fair market wage.
The ONA has turned down every fair market wage offered by OHSU during recent negotiations. The combined wage and benefits package in OHSU's last offer would be the best nursing contract in the community.
The union has consistently demanded wages and benefits drastically higher than OHSU and the community can afford. OHSU values its nurses and the work they do, but the university has no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. OHSU is bound by the limits of its budget.
It's not about OHSU's profit.
Profits are what private businesses pay to shareholders. As a not-for profit organization, OHSU has no profit and no shareholders. It is a public institution committed to everyone in Oregon.
Any money OHSU made last year goes into its reserve fund, to cushion the blow of unanticipated expenses -- such as a strike or an increase in our number of uninsured patients. Just as any fiscally-responsible person maintains an emergency savings account, all businesses have reserve funds as a safeguard.
It is about the economics of health care.
The pot of health care dollars shrinks as expenses and the ranks of the uninsured rise, forcing insurance premium increases for businesses and the government. OHSU and other public health institutions must help contain those costs or everyone loses.
It would be irresponsible of OHSU to pay what the union is asking, which is considerably higher than fair market wage. If OHSU resets the bar, other hospitals will be pressed to follow suit. Business and individuals would feel the pinch of this sudden wage inflation in the form of higher insurance premiums.
It is about OHSU's budget.
OHSU, which is not a state agency, struggles like any business in today's depressed economy. As Portland's largest employer and the state's fourth largest, OHSU has a responsibility to remain economically solvent. It must make sound business decisions to ensure fair wages for all of its 11,000 employees, many of whom work outside the patient care realm. OHSU is mandated by the state to serve Oregon through patient care, research, education and community service.
It is about training more nurses.
The obvious way to combat the nationwide nursing shortage is to educate more nurses. OHSU devotes a tremendous amount of energy to this effort. Enrollment in the School of Nursing's bachelor's program is up 15 percent from last year. Expanded online and video-based degree programs let working rural nurses pursue advanced training without leaving home. OHSU's School of Nursing, which is ranked among the top 10 schools in the nation, is launching new programs that focus squarely on this issue. In addition, the school constantly reinvigorates its curriculums to respond to the community's changing health care' needs.
It is about nurses having a greater say in health care.
OHSU nurses are integral to the university mission. Some striking nurses say that this is really about respect. OHSU wants to respond to them outside the context of a strike. The institution counts on nurses as partners in the ongoing effort to build a strong university and patient care community.