PeaceHealth, unions clash after healthcare system puts hundreds of workers on unpaid leave

Amid a surge in new COVID cases, a Pacific Northwest hospital system is at odds with its labor unions over the decision to lay off hundreds of unvaccinated workers.

PeaceHealth, headquartered in Vancouver, Washington, has approximately 800 unvaccinated workers on leave under a company-wide vaccination mandate that went into effect Sept. 1. The statewide mandates for health workers in Oregon and Washington won’t go into effect until next month.

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 complaints. The Washington State Nurses Association, which filed its complaint on Aug. 20, said the system had forced a change in policy without discussing it with labor groups.

“It is the responsibility of the health system to negotiate with its unions and it is our right to negotiate these events,” said Ruth Schubert, a WSNA representative.

Schubert said she and the union support vaccines and the vaccine mandates given by the governors of Oregon and Washington. She feared that PeaceHealth’s earlier deadline would come because COVID-19 weighs on hospitals.

PeaceHealth declined to comment on the complaints. Spokeswoman Debra Carnes said the policy had encouraged more workers to get vaccinated. System-wide, the percentage of vaccinated workers rose from 80% to 92% from August, she said.

“This was a painful decision, a difficult decision, but ultimately our most important ethical duty is to ensure the safety of our patients and our community,” said Dr. Lawrence Neville, a medical director for the system, in a press conference Friday morning.

Kaiser Permanente and Legacy Health, two other major healthcare systems in the Northwest, announced similar COVID-19 vaccination requirements as PeaceHealth, but set their deadline for late September.

In Oregon and Washington, the statewide deadline for full vaccination of all private health workers is October 18.

PeaceHealth officials have not disclosed exactly how many workers have been given leave. The system operates four hospitals in Lane County, Oregon, and five in West Washington, as well as a constellation of clinics. It employs around 16,000 people in total.

With around 92% of employees vaccinated, officials said an additional 3% were given religious or medical exemptions not to get vaccinated. The remaining 5% are unpaid, said hospital officials.

The decision will be made as the pandemic builds across the country. Data dashboards maintained by health officials in Oregon and Washington show that intensive care bed occupancy is nearing full capacity, with COVID-19 cases being driven by the more contagious Delta variant.

In briefings this week, health officials in both states said almost all hospital stays in the COVID-19 intensive care unit in the past week were for the unvaccinated.

In the southern Willamette Valley, Oregon National Guard troops arrived at PeaceHealth medical centers this week to support the overwhelmed hospital staff and another hospital.

In its complaint of August 20, the WSNA feared that “the already crisis-ridden staffing” would be further strained without trained and available workers. The complaint specifically highlighted concerns in emergency rooms, intensive care units and the COVID special units.

Pamela Chandran, a WSNA attorney, said it was a simple – if grim – prediction.

“We asked what you will do on September 1st when you inevitably lose additional caregivers?” Said Chandran. “And there was no answer to that question.”

Chandran said the union met with PeaceHealth officials on August 3 to discuss policy and raise concerns about the timing. Then, Chandran said, PeaceHealth sent out another policy amendment that clarified the September 1st deadline.

Chandran said the system stopped responding to the union afterwards.

“You are required to negotiate with us under federal labor law,” said Chandran. “Your policy was a change that you need to negotiate with us.”

With the lawsuit, the union is asking a federal court to effectively crush PeaceHealth’s new policy. Chandran said the union’s main goal is to give workers the necessary exemptions.

However, Chandran said a court-ordered restraining order could return workers who simply refuse to vaccinate to their jobs until state mandates go into effect.

Amelia Templeton from OPB contributed to this report.

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