A group of 15 doctors and other providers at Eugene-area clinics say unionization is their best path to address staff shortages and burnout.
Fifteen health care providers — including physicians and nurse practitioners — from four Eugene-area clinics plan to file for union recognition with the National Labor Relations Board, the Oregon Nurses Association announced Thursday.
According to the union's press release, the new group is calling itself PeaceHealth Providers United and will focus its collective bargaining power on addressing burnout, staffing shortages, safe patient care and “access to care for the region’s most vulnerable patients.”
The newly-formed coalition of urgent care workers will partner with the Pacific Northwest Hospital Medicine Association, an existing hospitalists union, which is represented by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and serviced by the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA).
The PeaceHealth providers have organized across two urgent care clinics in Eugene, one urgent care clinic in Springfield, and the walk-in clinic located at Woodfield Station in Eugene.
Devin Lee, a PeaceHealth physician who will be represented by AFT, tells Oregon Business the providers are seeking union representation in order to address staffing shortages and unsafe working conditions.
“We’re trying to keep our patients as safe as possible. And it's hard to have that conversation when management seems to be focused more on a bottom line, instead of having their primary priority being patient safety,” says Lee.
Lee has been practicing urgent care at PeaceHealth for two and a half years, and says that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, urgent care doctors have been pushed to work longer hours serving a higher volume of patients. Lee says management policies aimed at higher turnaround have made the situation unsustainable.
Lee hopes being part of a union will give medical providers like him will have more of a voice regarding patient-provider ratios, and how much time they get to spend with patients. While physicians have not historically needed unions, Lee says consolidation is quickly changing the status quo.
“A physician used to be a ‘Lone Ranger’ sort of thing. You had your private practice and that was your business. But there's been a consolidation, and more and more doctors are becoming part of healthcare organizations,” says Lee. “In its own sort of strange way, we are tradespeople. We work with our hands. We only get paid when we work. And we only get paid for the work we do. More and more doctors are realizing that as tradespeople we are stronger together.”
Wendy Lang, a nurse practitioner who Lee says "spearheaded" the push for AFT representation, said in the union's press release that PeaceHealth’s management decisions have led to "unsafe staffing levels, four-hour or more wait times for patients, and unhealthy working conditions."
"In just a few months, with just a few decisions, PeaceHealth management has broken urgent care," Lang said in the release. "Providers are being pushed beyond their physical and mental abilities to practice medicine safely. There is no safety valve to slow down or stop patient flow, we are not treated as human beings but rather expected to perform like a machine with only one short break in a 12 to 13-hour shift. It doesn’t feel safe and is not sustainable."
Providers say on that on Wednesday, they delivered a letter to management petitioning for voluntary recognition so they could begin collective bargaining. The providers claim their petition was declined for voluntary recognition by PeaceHealth administration, so they filed for a union recognition election through traditional NLRB mechanisms Thursday.
"There is a staggering need for urgent care in the community, and we could provide many more patients with quality care, but we can’t retain staff," said Morgan Garvin, a medical doctor at PeaceHealth Urgent Care in Valley River clinic in Eugene, in the union’s press release. "PeaceHealth management should be focusing on improving staffing, but instead they choose to micromanage the few providers we have left. Unionizing helps balance the scales between us and management so we can make this a place that patients recommend first to their loved ones, and a magnet workplace for providers."
Garvin’s facility has been closed since last year due to staffing shortages and burnout among staff. According to the union’s press release, the closure was the cause of significant demand increase for care from the other facilities and a dramatic increase in stress on the providers at operating facilities.
According to the release, patients who rely on these clinics are some of the most vulnerable in the community, including people experiencing houselessness and housing insecurity, undocumented residents, and people who are uninsured or underinsured.
In a statement to Oregon Business, PeaceHealth says it "respect(s) the rights and opinions of all our providers and caregivers, and affirm that they have the choice either to join a union or to preserve a direct relationship with PeaceHealth," and that the company would "always work with the requisite organizations to ensure these rights are preserved."
The announcement comes as nurses at two Providence Health Systems facilities wrap a vote on whether to authorize strike against the state’s largest health care provider Staffing shortages have played a large role in the union’s decision to hold strike authorization votes, according to ONA communications manager Kevin Mealy. Earlier this month nurses at a third Providence hospital, Providence St. Vincent, voted to authorize a strike.
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