BEND, Ore. - The Oregon Nurses Association filed an unfair labor practice charge Wednesday with the National Labor Relations Board against St. Charles Health System over the hospitals’ policy of requiring that employees get a flu shot (and wear a sticker signifying it) or wear a mask.
ONA claims St. Charles violated employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act by refusing to bargain with nurses over the change in working conditions — as required by law — and “unilaterally implementing a vaccination and masking policy that violates workers’ privacy rights.”
ONA Communications Manager Kevin Mealy told NewsChannel 21, "Nurses have been asking to work together with St. Charles on this policy since the idea was first floated. We raised concerns about the appropriateness of sort of requiring nurses to publicly reveal their private healthcare decisions."
ONA has asked the National Labor Relations Board for an immediate injunction to stop St. Charles from continuing to infringe on nurses’ rights while the board investigates St. Charles unfair labor practice.
"St. Charles has repeatedly refused to negotiate with nurses," Mealy said.
ONA represents more than 800 registered nurses at St. Charles facilities in Bend and Prineville and more than 13,500 nurses throughout Oregon.
On Dec. 1, the ONA said, “St. Charles began forcing nurses and other workers to wear a mask at nearly all times while at work or receive an influenza vaccination and wear a red sticker with a picture of a syringe at all times at work to publicly display their compliance with St. Charles’ new vaccination and masking policy.”
Nurses have expressed concerns to St. Charles administrators about the effectiveness and appropriateness of this tactic, which ONA said “ignores other evidence-based methods of disease prevention and publicly reveals workers’ private health care choices.”
"Vaccines are one important step in flu prevention and disease prevention, but it's only one step," Mealy said. "We need to look at a comprehensive policy and look at the evidence presented to us to come up with something that's effective to patients."
“St. Charles disregard for the law and for protecting confidential health care information is extremely concerning. We expect better from our community’s health care organizations,” said local emergency department nurse John Nangle, RN, CEN, chair of ONA’s bargaining unit at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend. “As nurses, we must continue advocating for our patients and for fair policies that protect the public and protect private health records.”
Since St. Charles announced its new vaccination and masking policy, ONA said it :has repeatedly asked St. Charles administrators to come to the table and work together on a comprehensive, evidence-based flu prevention policy, which includes voluntary vaccinations, community education on the risks and benefits of vaccinations, adherence to infection control precautions such as hand-washing and respiratory hygiene, and attendance policies that allow workers time to recover from an illness without fear of discipline. “
But the nurses’ union claimed “St. Charles has continually denied nurses' requests to bargain over their vaccination and masking policy; a violation of the National Labor Relations Act which requires employers to negotiate with workers prior to implementing policies which impact employees’ working conditions.”
“St. Charles needs to show it is committed to following the law and working together with nurses to create effective, comprehensive flu prevention policies. Forcing nurses and caregivers to wear masks and violating their confidentiality isn’t the right approach,” said local emergency department nurse Sheila Nichols, RN, chair of ONA’s bargaining unit at St. Charles Prineville.
The ONA said the National Labor Relations Board is expected to open an investigation into the charge.
St. Charles issued a statement later Wednesday, standing by its policy. It reads, in full:
"St. Charles Health System's highest priority must be to protect our patients and caregivers, many of whom are exceptionally vulnerable to adverse outcomes from the flu. The research clearly shows that flu vaccinations vastly increase mass immunity and protect immune-suppressed patients.
"If you're an American and you die of an infectious disease, it's more likely to be from the flu than anything else," said Dr. Rebecca Sherer, St. Charles' medical director of infection prevention and control. "Getting an annual flu shot is the single best thing we can do to protect our patients."
"Our flu and masking policy-which applies to all employees, licensed independent physicians, contractors and students-is modeled after ones in place at many other health systems throughout the state and nation. We value our nurses and our partnership with the Oregon Nurses Association.
"We engaged the union well before this policy went into effect and explained the rationale. At this point. the policy is in place and we stand firm behind it. It's the right thing to do for our patients and caregivers.
"We have confidence the National Labor Relations Board will agree that this policy change is not subject to bargaining and will affirm our position and approach to protecting patients and caregivers."
Mealy told NewsChannel 21 the union "has worked together with Providence and other hospitals on flu prevention policies."
"The policies we've supported at other facilities typically have protections to ensure nurses' vaccination status is kept confidential, limit masking requirements to patient areas based on research about the most common way influenza spreads, and adjust attendance policies during flu season to allow workers' time to get well instead of forcing them to go to work sick and risk spreading the flu," Mealy said.
"St. Charles corporate policy doesn't have the same type of protections," he added.