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Nurses picket in Astoria

Nurses participate in an informational picket outside Clatsop Memorial Hospital in Astoria on Tuesday. Photo by Katie Frankowicz/KMUN

ASTORIA, Ore. — Nurses at Columbia Memorial Hospital are not on strike – at least not yet. 

But on Tuesday they held an informational picket in front of the Astoria hospital — a sort of prelude to a possible strike. The demonstration was an attempt to sway administration as the labor union, which represents around 130 nurses at Columbia Memorial, pushes for a contract that focuses on wage increases, safe staffing, nurse recruitment and retention and safe working conditions.

It was part of a coordinated approach led by the Oregon Nurses Association across several Oregon Health and Science University-affiliated hospitals including facilities in Portland and Hillsboro. 

The informational picket at Columbia Memorial came on the heels of a week-long strike by health care workers at three Providence facilities, including Providence Seaside Hospital. Some of the Seaside nurses traveled to Astoria on Tuesday to show their support.

“You know, a lot of these Providence nurses kind of set the tone for what nurses are feeling right now and in the future,” said Daisy Hernandez, a labor representative for the Oregon Nurses Association and for Columbia Memorial. “Because it’s not only this year that there’s going to be contract negotiations, (there’s) next year, too.”

“So,” she added, “administration, hospitals, CEOs: They know that nurses are ready to stand up for themselves. So, yeah, I think Seaside was definitely a push forward.”

For Daniel Marineau, a registered nurse in Columbia Memorial’s emergency department who has worked at the hospital for more than 30 years, of particular concern is the administration’s plan to do away with a pension plan he — and more than a dozen others — had counted on for retirement. 

“At this point in the game, I’ve been in it so long,” he said. “And for me to try to start over with a new plan, I’m not ever going to be able to get caught up enough to have any plan of retirement that’s going to do any good.”

But Marineau also believes nurses’ demands could help the hospital in the long run as staffing continues to be a challenge. He says it’s a struggle exacerbated by a number of issues — including housing — that only seem to have gotten worse since the coronavirus pandemic.

“Now housing’s gone just absolutely crazy here,” he said. “There’s been several nurses that have applied for jobs, taken positions and then they can’t find housing. They can’t afford it. They can’t find it.”

Hernandez says she is not very optimistic about talks with hospital administration right now. 

“We’re far apart on some of our issues,” she said on Tuesday.

In a statement posted to its website, the hospital said that while wages continue to be a sticking point, the groups have reached agreement on several other items.

Chief Operating Officer Nicole Williams said in a statement that the hospital is committed to offering competitive wages. She argued that a recent review of current nurse salaries showed Columbia Memorial nurses were paid one of the highest rates compared to other hospitals in the state. 

“Our nurses are a critical part of the caregiving team at (Columbia Memorial),” Williams said. “We’ve made progress on many of the contract issues and continue to listen to nurses’ concerns. We’re hopeful we can come to an agreement soon to continue providing excellent care to our patients without interruption.”

The next bargaining session is scheduled for July 10th.