PeaceHealth and unions clash after healthcare system puts hundreds of workers on unpaid leave
Amid an increase in the number of new COVID cases, a Pacific Northwest hospital system is at odds with its employee unions over a decision to fire hundreds of unvaccinated workers.
PeaceHealth, based in Vancouver, Wash., Has put about 800 unvaccinated workers on leave as part of a company-wide vaccination mandate that went into effect on September 1.
Since PeaceHealth announced the mandate on August 3, unions representing a wide range of workers – from nurses to respiratory therapists to guards – have filed at least seven work-related complaints. The Washington State Nurses Association, which filed its complaint Aug. 20, said the system forced a change in policy without discussing it with worker groups.
“It is the responsibility of the health system to negotiate with their unions, and it is our right to negotiate on these events,” said Ruth Schubert, a representative of the WSNA.
Schubert said she and the union supported the vaccines and vaccination warrants forwarded by the governors of Oregon and Washington. She was concerned that the earlier PeaceHealth deadline would come as COVID-19 puts a strain on hospitals.
PeaceHealth declined to comment on the complaints. Spokeswoman Debra Carnes said the policy had indeed pushed more workers to get vaccinated. System-wide from August, the share of workers vaccinated rose from 80% to 92%, she said.
“It was a heartbreaking decision, a difficult decision, but at the end of the day our first ethical duty is to protect our patients and our community,” said Dr. Lawrence Neville, system medical officer, in a press release. conference Friday morning.
Kaiser Permanente and Legacy Health, two other major healthcare systems in the Northwest, announced COVID-19 vaccination requirements similar to PeaceHealth’s, but set their deadline for the end of September.
In Oregon and Washington, the statewide deadline for all private healthcare workers to be fully immunized is October 18.
PeaceHealth officials did not reveal exactly how many workers were put on leave. The system operates four hospitals in Lane County, Oregon, and five in western Washington, as well as a constellation of clinics. In total, it employs around 16,000 people.
With around 92% of staff vaccinated, officials said an additional 3% had been granted religious or medical exemptions to not get vaccinated. The remaining 5% are on unpaid leave, hospital officials said.
The move comes as the pandemic spreads across the country. Data dashboards maintained by health agencies in Oregon and Washington show that intensive care unit bed occupancy is approaching full capacity, with cases of COVID-19 driven by swelling of the more contagious delta variant.
In briefings this week, health officials from both states said almost all COVID-19 ICU hospitalizations in the past week were in unvaccinated people.
In the southern Willamette Valley, Oregon National Guard troops arrived at PeaceHealth medical centers this week to support overwhelmed hospital staff, as well as another hospital.
In its August 20 complaint, the WSNA feared that “staffing already at the crisis level” would be further sought without trained and available workers. The complaint specifically highlighted concerns in emergency rooms, intensive care units and specialized COVID units.
Pamela Chandran, an attorney representing the WSNA, said it was an easy, albeit bleak prediction.
“We asked what are you going to do on September 1 when you inevitably lose extra caregivers? Chandran said. “And there was no answer to that question.”
According to Chandran, the union met with PeaceHealth officials on August 3 to discuss the policy and raise scheduling issues. Then, Chandran said, PeaceHealth sent another policy change clarifying the September 1 deadline.
Chandran said the system stopped responding to the union after that.
“They are required to negotiate with us under federal labor law,” Chandran said. “Their policy was a change that they are required to negotiate with us.”
By filing the complaint, the union is asking a federal court to effectively crush the new PeaceHealth policy. Chandran said the union’s main goal is to enable workers to obtain the necessary exemptions.
However, Chandran said, a court-ordered injunction could allow workers who simply refuse to be vaccinated to return to work until state warrants take effect.
Amelia Templeton of the OPB contributed to this report.