As a registered respiratory therapist, Rachel Maida spent the past year caring for COVID-19 patients at St Charles Medical Center in Bend, Oregon in the United States – challenging work that has taken both a physical and mental toll on the 48-year-old.
The powered air purifying respirator (PAPR) she wears for 12 hours a day causes headaches, she said, and her mask leaves bruises on her face. She loves her job, but “it’s exhausting, day in and day out,” Maida told Al Jazeera, explaining that earning between $25 and $35 per hour, she is not compensated enough.
That is why nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Maida and more than 150 other medical technicians – a group of highly skilled healthcare professionals who typically don’t have the labour protections afforded to nurses and doctors – have been negotiating their first union contract as part of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (OFNHP).
Medical technicians are a smaller workforce in many US hospitals compared to nursing staff and provide care that is essential but generally less visible to patients. These workers receive between $24 and $50 per hour at St Charles Bend, and for some, overtime pay only kicks in after 12 hours of work, according to union organiser Sam Potter.
But the pandemic has shone a spotlight on their work – and led many workers in the field to demand greater protections, said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labour studies at Rutgers University.
“The fact that some technologists are playing an absolutely crucial role in keeping COVID patients alive, especially respiratory therapists, while facing incredibly difficult work that is both physically and emotionally gruelling, I think that that creates an atmosphere where workers are ready to demand more,” Givan told Al Jazeera.
Workers are dedicated to serving public health; they don’t threaten to strike superficially or prematurely. This is a reflection of a lot of built-up frustration rather than devaluing public health.
Negotiations between OFNHP leaders and hospital management stalled in early December, however, with the two parties failing to agree on compensation and overtime hours. Three months have passed, and workers say they are tired of waiting for change. Maida and her colleagues decided that if the hospital did not come back with concrete proposals for a fair contract, they would walk out on Thursday morning, which they did.
The hospital said they approached the union Tuesday with an offer to return to the bargaining table, but the union was unwilling to do so, a claim members patently deny.
“We would love to settle this contract and remain caring for the patients we love. But since St Charles has been unwilling to show us the basic respect we deserve, we have no other choice. By going on strike, we remind the hospital that we matter,” said ultrasound technician DeeDee Schumacher, who has worked at the hospital for 40 years.
Later in the day on Tuesday, the St Charles Health System made an unsuccessful attempt to pause the strike through a court injunction, which a federal judge declined to issue.
In response, St Charles Bend’s President Aaron Adams issued a statement saying, “We had hoped the courts would give us additional time to get back to the bargaining table with the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals so that we could reach a contract agreement without an impact to our patients. We are disappointed in the outcome but will continue our preparations to hire and onboard replacement workers and minimize disruptions to our patients and community.”
Workers say they, too, would prefer to negotiate in good faith than walk off the job and away from their patients. Union member Frank DeWolf, an electrophysiology technologist, said rather than focusing on replacement staff, the hospital should work with its current employees.
“They can just bargain with us instead. All the replacement workers they need, they’ll just be out on the street right outside the hospital,” DeWolf told Al Jazeera.
DeWolf started working in the hospital’s catheterisation laboratory in 2014, earning $95,000 a year in gross salary. This past year, he said he earned only $70,000 even though his hourly wages have increased slightly.
“Every year, I seem to be dropping my income, not increasing,” he said. He attributes this decline to a reduction in differential pay, the increase in wages that employees receive when working nights and weekends.
Meanwhile, the cost of living in Bend, Oregon has gone up during the pandemic as more people move to the resort town from cities across the western US. For example, the median price for a single-family home in Bend was $580,000 in January, a 22.5 percent increase from the same time last year, according to a Central Oregon Association of Realtors report.
St Charles maintains that it has put its caregivers and patients first throughout the pandemic despite the hospital suffering financial losses. “While many other health systems laid off staff early on in the pandemic, we made sure our caregivers continued to receive full paychecks even when we didn’t have patients for them to care for,” Adams said in his statement Tuesday.
Pay inequities within the healthcare system, however, remain stark, Givan said.
“The difference between a lower-paid, service worker or technologist and a healthcare executive is massive,” she explained.
St Charles Bend is the only level-two trauma centre in the region, and the hospital takes in the majority of the COVID-19 cases in the eastern part of the state, Maida said, but contractual employees in outlying St Charles campuses make higher hourly wages while treating fewer COVID-19 patients.
“Why are we not getting paid the same amount when we put our lives in danger every single day?” she asked.
The medical technicians have laid out their contract proposals. According to OFNHP organiser Potter, workers are primarily asking for predictable yearly raises, compensation that reflects the market rate and the cost of living in Bend and a wage differential that matches what registered, unionised nurses receive at St Charles Bend.
“Getting this contract is critical for a variety of reasons,” Potter told Al Jazeera, explaining that the decision to strike received overwhelming support from more than 94 percent of union members.
It generally takes a lot for healthcare workers to strike, said John Budd, a professor of work and organisations at the University of Minnesota.
“Workers are dedicated to serving public health; they don’t threaten to strike superficially or prematurely,” Budd told Al Jazeera. “This is a reflection of a lot of built-up frustration rather than devaluing public health.”
And while this particular fight is centred in Bend, how it plays out could be a harbinger for medical technicians across the country. There is already a growing interest in union organising across the healthcare industry, according to labour experts.
Givan said, “There have been some significant strikes, where workers have gotten big protections by walking out on strike during the pandemic.”
While registered nurses receive the majority of media attention and are the most highly unionised healthcare workers – with a unionisation rate of around 18 percent, according to 2019 Union Membership and Coverage Database data – “more and more other healthcare workers are organising, too,” Givan said.
The strike at St Charles is among a handful of organising actions taken by medical technicians during the pandemic, but labour experts say this is just the beginning.
The fact that some technologists are playing an absolutely crucial role in keeping COVID patients alive, especially respiratory therapists, while facing incredibly difficult work that is both physically and emotionally gruelling, I think that that creates an atmosphere where workers are ready to demand more.
“What healthcare workers have going for them is the fact that demand for healthcare services and healthcare workers is increasing and will be for the foreseeable future,” Adam Seth Litwin, an associate professor of industrial and labour relations at Cornell University, told Al Jazeera.
The fact that medical technicians are essential workers gives them more power at the negotiating table, but the bargaining process takes time, and experts expect to see more unionisation of medical technicians and hospital support staff in years to come.
“I think we can expect that those medical technologists without a union who have worked through the pandemic, [they] will see how detrimental it is when they don’t have a voice on the job, and will understand that being unionised gives them the ability to provide higher-quality patient care and achieve better protections,” Givan said.
As she joins a workers’ strike for the first time in her life, Maida is proud of both her job as a respiratory therapist and her organising efforts.
“I’ve actually been choked up several times about it just because I want to go to work and be happy and feel like I’m appreciated,” she said. “I really hope that things change.”