There were empty tables at this year's Good Shepherd Christmas event. Many nurses chose to attend a separate celebration at the Stanfield Baptist Church. While I certainly cannot speak for all the nursing professionals, I can speak for my own family and say we have felt honored and privileged to attend the hospital's gala in past years. As the spouse of a Good Shepherd nurse, and a long-time Hermiston resident, I can say that I and many of my friends and relatives who are connected in various ways with the hospital have deeply appreciated the sort of family building these community events can foster. I can also say, that in our case, the decision was difficult and not a result of the fact that the nurses are currently in contract negotiations. It was rather, the result of the dismissive, heavy-handed, and degrading behaviors the management has chosen in their approach to these negotiations.

My wife is a former president of the local Oregon Nurses Association bargaining unit, and she has remained active with her professional association over her career. She is fond of saying, "You either stand for something, or you stand for nothing."

I am proud to say this hospital has maintained respectful and collaborative relations with nurses during negotiations in the past. While the sides may have disagreed on particular issues, they have treated each other with the kind of dignity that leads to collaboration where possible and respectful negotiation where needed. This has not been the case this year.

This year the hospital has chosen to depart from a long tradition of collaboration. They have demanded that the nurses accept degrading proposals to their contract. Management has based this on extensive additions to what they call "Management Rights," and on an arbitrary and subjective "Pay for Performance" system. The "Pay for Performance" scheme the hospital is demanding possibly stems from a completely different, albeit equally problematic plan being promoted by the federal government for Medicare reimbursements to hospitals. Under such a plan, hospitals would be rewarded for meeting certain pre-established targets for care instead of the current "Fee for Service" arrangement. Perhaps, the thinking is "If they are going to push this on us, we are going to push this on you." One would hope this is not the case, because such a rationalization is childish and invalidating to both nurses and patients.

In a recent article in the East Oregonian, Mark Ettesvold, public relations director for Good Shepherd, made the misleading suggestion that a system such as the hospital proposes is common in the commercial world. It is very rare indeed for nurses, who are the backbone of healthcare and the patient's advocate. Nurses must continue to care for patients, and not be forced to treat human lives like mere customers, focusing on whether a particular treatment will lead to a personal pay increase at the end of the year.

If the goal of the hospital is to improve patient outcomes, switching nurses to an arbitrary and subjective compensation package based upon a manager's perception of care makes no sense. The current pay scale system is the industry standard; it is predictable, fair, and rewards retention of experienced nurses while attracting talented new nurses. It seems more likely that the goal is simply to degrade the nurses contract, thus giving management a tool for cutting costs.

As ONA nurses have attempted to participate in good-faith negotiations, they have seen a sudden unexpected increase to their family insurance deductions on their paychecks. This increase has had a detrimental effect on families at the holidays, and reverses a long-in-place cost-sharing system for insurance coverage with nurses. This punitive measure has been used by the hospital as pressure to force nurses to accept an agreement on the hospital's terms.

Finally, and perhaps most difficult to accept, the hospital management has taken a deeply personal and churlish approach to their interactions with nurses. I feel I must address the insulting remarks of the hospital negotiation team. When the nurses used wage comparisons of other regional hospitals to point out inequities, a hospital spokesperson said, "Go work there."

This certainly does not sound like the rhetoric of an administration seeking to retain and recruit high quality caregivers. The most egregious comment, however, came from a hospital spokesperson who actually said, "Nurses show up and get paid to breathe and we get nothing from them."

This remark is offensive to the profession of nursing and is the statement that prevented my family from attending the hospital's Christmas event. At the time of this writing there has been no attempt to withdraw, or apologize for those insulting comments.

While I would have loved to share a delicious holiday dinner with the many wonderful people who are employed by Good Shepherd, I could not help but think long and hard about the spirit in which it was offered. I could not in good conscience accept the generosity of anyone who could say, or allow to be said, something so hurtful and so false about people I love and respect - not at Christmas, not at any time.

Joseph V. Brusberg is a writer and teacher, who has lived in Hermiston for more than 20 years. He has a writing degree and a masters in education from Eastern Oregon University. His wife is Marla McQuatters, a registered nurse at Good Shepherd.

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