Michael Smith, a 32-year-old linen tech at McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center, generally starts his day by bringing clean linen in and loading it into carts every morning. Smith pushes those carts around the hospital and fills every closet. He makes sure all employees have uniforms for the day and all patients have clean linens.
Smith says he loves his job, but fears that he will lose the benefits that make working there possible.
He has worked in the linen tech industry for 11 years, three of which he’s worked for McKenzie-Willamette. He says his mother worked in hospitals, and when he dropped out of college, he picked up a job as a linen tech.
“I love the health care environment. Everyone’s so nice,” he says. Smith says he also gets both health care and dental insurance, the benefits lifting a financial burden off of his shoulders.
But those benefits hinge on McKenzie-Willamette’s decision to outsource workers for jobs like Smith’s.
According to Smith and SEIU Local 49’s union, management announced that the hospital would be outsourcing essential workers from dietary and environmental services, which includes linen techs. Outsourcing workers could result in loss of payment, loss of benefits or loss of work for already established employees. Smith says he didn’t know about the outsourcing until it was announced at the work meeting, which could be a violation of the contract between SEIU and McKenzie-Willamette.
Outsourcing is a practice among companies to hire from outside the company, often because of labor shortage or costs. The main reason for a company to outsource is usually the cost of operations, but according to McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center’s hospital spokesperson and marketing director Jana Waterman, the goal of outsourcing in this case is to improve the patient experience.
Because of the proposal to outsource, SEIU plans to help workers negotiate and bargain with McKenzie-Willamette to compromise. Tara Noftsier, SEIU’s communication director, says that the union works to “amplify the voice of the workers” and informs workers about laws that are set to protect them.
“The workers are under contract right now,” Noftsier says. “And part of that contract is that McKenzie-Willamette cannot just outsource without bargaining.”
Because McKenzie-Willamette did not warn workers about the decision or offer to bargain, Noftsier says that the hospital violated its contract. She says that they can pursue laws around unfair labor practices legally if necessary.
Waterman says that hospital representatives are currently engaged in negotiations with SEIU regarding outsourcing, in accordance with the contract. McKenzie-Willamette did not answer additional questions from Eugene Weekly “out of respect for the union bargaining process.”
Noftsier says that the hospital refuses to provide the information the union has requested, specifically the financial details of their contract with HHS, formerly known as Hospital Housekeeping System, an outsourcing company based in Texas. HSS offers nonunion job listings on its website, with locations listed all over the country. Without the financial details of the contract, Noftsier says it’s difficult to present detailed alternatives to outsourcing.
Current workers, Noftsier says, have wages health care and benefits. McKenzie-Willamette said that if they choose to outsource, current workers would be hired and it would require HSS to bargain with the union.
Smith says it feels like all of the hard work and extra steps he spent keeping people safe during the pandemic is unappreciated.
Smith was the only worker left in his department when everyone else was furloughed after noncritical surgeries were shut down during the height of the pandemic. At one point, he says he worked alone for more than 30 days in a row. He felt constantly exhausted and overworked.
“It was a negative work environment,” he says. “I tried to bring up these issues, and I was mostly just ignored.”
Smith’s girlfriend is in the high-risk category for COVID-19, and he worried that he might bring the virus home with him. Smith says McKenzie-Willamette would not pay medical staff to stay home if infected with COVID-19 to quarantine, adding another layer of stress to his situation.
When the news hit about outsourcing from his department, Smith says that he feared losing his medical and dental benefits. If he were to lose his benefits, he says he might quit. But he hasn’t heard anything from what might happen to workers for him to make that decision.
“I felt like it was a bit of a slap in the face,” he says. “I always felt a lot of pride coming here through the pandemic, and they say we’re all health care heroes. After that, I felt like a health care zero.”
This story has been updated.