PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center,” Rick Obst

July 30, 2019; Public News Service

On July 19, 2019, central Oregon hospital workers approved a contract that raises wages but also includes measures to assist low- and middle-income patients afford their medical bills. Teacher contracts, prodded by the #RedforEd movement, now often include measures to improve student supports and the overall learning experience. But seeing this “common good” or structured inclusiveness bargaining approach applied in a hospital worker context marks a bit of a departure for US health care unions.

The contract covers 1,400 workers at two PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center campuses located in Eugene and Springfield. Workers covered by the contract include an array of essential occupations, including certified nursing assistants, housekeepers, emergency room technicians, imaging technicians, respiratory therapists, dietary workers, and patient registry workers. According to SEIU Local 49, which represents the workers, the new contract includes “strong yearly raises, increased differentials and incentive pay to help staff hard-to-fill shifts, a stronger voice in hospital staffing, increased tuition reimbursement” as well as ground-breaking provisions to promote affordable health care for the patients who use PeaceHealth’s services.

Public News Service reports that workers will receive average wage increases of 17 percent over three years. The contract also requires the hospital to comply with Oregon’s new charity care and community benefit law. That law is the first in the nation to set a floor for hospital charity care, requiring hospitals to provide free care for families with incomes under 200 percent of the poverty level, and discounted care for families with household incomes up to 400 percent of the poverty level. SEIU Local 49 was instrumental in passing the legislation.

Union president Meg Niemi told Public News Service that the contract, by requiring compliance with the legislation, “captures a lot of working-class families…making sure that people are able to get the care they need from these hospitals that are not paying taxes in our state in return for being nonprofits.”

Oregon’s nonprofit hospitals have reduced their charity care by 50 percent since 2010, when the Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid coverage and reduced the number of people in need of free care. But many Oregonians, including the hospital’s own workers, struggle to pay their medical expenses. The new legislation—codified in the contract—ensures the state’s nonprofit institutions continue to subsidize care for those who cannot afford it.

The union contract also expands the number of nursing assistants on the hospital staffing committee from one to two. These committees play a key role in patient care and employee safety, and having two nursing assistants will greatly enhance the influence of workers who are often undervalued but provide much of the direct care patients receive.

In the union press statement, Niemi emphasized that the contract, by improving the quality of frontline jobs, will help to improve patient care: “This union contract will increase the front-line voice in patient care. The wage increases are the best caregivers have received in the hospital in over two decades and will help retain highly qualified and experienced staff.” The union, she noted, will be looking for similar wins as they move forward with contract negotiations at a nearby for-profit hospital, McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center.—Karen Kahn