Local Hospital Workers Back on Strike

More than 300 McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center workers are on strike for five days, calling for livable wages and affordable health insurance

Recently outsourced workers before picking up their final paycheck.

The rain pours as a group of hospital union workers at McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center accompany recently outsourced coworkers, who are picking up their final paycheck, to the main entrance of the hospital. 

The union workers and supporters can’t walk with the outsourced employees through the doors because they’d be crossing the picket line, so they stand and watch as about 20 now-former workers go, one by one, to pick up their final paycheck. 

The hospital laid off and outsourced about 70 workers who clean linens and do housekeeping on Dec. 5, the day before the start of a five-day strike organized by SEIU Local 49. 

Union workers say they’re still fighting for those hospital workers who were recently terminated, as well as the workers who are employed by an outsourced agency. Union members on the bargaining team say hospital management refuses to increase wages for hospital workers to market rate —  a level that compares to other local medical centers. They say a pay increase would help retain workers at the hospital and improve patient-care. 

“It’s ridiculous that it has to come to this,” says Rachael Gordon, a certified nurse assistant (CNA) and member of the SEIU Local 49 bargaining team. “But we will not back down. This five-day strike response to management will affect patient care and it will continue to do so over the five-day strike.” 

The strike consists of more than 300 health care workers employed at the hospital, who are protesting McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center’s management’s tactics during labor contract bargaining. The hospital is majority owned by Quorum, a Tennessee-based corporation. After the strike, the workers will return to work. 

The local union chapter represents CNAs, MRI technicians, respiratory therapists, pharmacy technicians and others. The union and the hospital’s management have had several bargaining sessions with a federal mediator. In October, the union had a two-day strike

Dec. 6 was the first day of the second strike, which runs through Saturday, Dec. 11, and included visits from state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, Lane Community College Board of Education Member Austin Folnagy and Yamhill County Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Casey Kulla. 

Strikes aren’t the only things that have impacted patient care at the hospital. Aaron Green, a CNA and member of the union’s bargaining team says high turnover due to low wages and poor health care has had more of an impact. 

“We’re losing staff left and right so we’re constantly training new people, which does not allow us to provide the high-quality patient care that these patients should be getting,” he says. “When you’re constantly getting a new person — they’re here for a month or two — and then they’re gone, just because they find a better place to work that pays what the market is, that’s sad.” 

For example, the hospital is shorthanded with CNAs, he adds. “The last I checked, we had 27 CNA positions posted on our internal website,” he says. Green says that a starting wage for a CNA at McKenzie-Willamette is $15.88, which is $5 less than the market rate. 

The union didn’t specify how much it’s asking for from management since it varies for about 80 different positions in the hospital — all of which average about 10 percent below the market rate. Green says they’re hoping to receive closer to the positions’ market-rate wage. 

“Anything less than what they’re offering for inflation — which was 6 percent this year — means that anyone who’s working in the hospital is taking a pay cut,” he says. “With our wages already so behind, how can we get people in here to provide the quality care that these patients deserve?” 

Gordon says listening to the hospital management’s responses to union offers “is disgusting.”

Green gives an example of the hospital’s justification for the pharmacy technician wages. “Pharmacist techs are happy with low wages. They came here for the environment,” he recalls them saying. 

He says that hospital management has been gathering wage data from Indeed and Glassdoor employment websites. “Using outdated materials, which don’t represent what the local community is paying, is part of the problem,” he says. 

The union has asked for increases of wages ranging from 10 to 20 percent of their wages, which still wouldn’t compare to positions at other hospitals or care facilities, but hospital management thinks those numbers aren’t realistic, Green says. He adds that the union has collected wage data from other hospital contracts with SEIU union chapters in Oregon, as well as advertisements from local nursing homes. 

The hospital management is still proposing a 15 percent increase over three years, according to SEIU. Green says with increased health insurance costs and low wages, the hospital hasn’t created a sustainable job. 

And with former McKenzie-Willamette workers receiving their final paycheck on the first day of the five-day strike, Green says it leaves other hospital employees wondering if they’re next to be outsourced. 

“People start wondering what their future is going to be. Are they going to get rid of my job next?” he says.

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