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April 22 2021
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Medical technicians' strike in Oregon could be the first of many
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Story by Lizzie Mulvey - Story Source
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  ECONOMY Pandemic  
 
Today's strike by medical technicians in Bend, Oregon in the United States could be the beginning of a labour organising trend among non-nursing healthcare professionals who have put their lives on the line during the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

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.

Fighting for labour rights 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. Read full story