Columbia Memorial Hospital nurses plan to picket if a mediation session today doesn't settle a five-month contract dispute.

Hospital and nurse negotiators called in a federal mediator when contract talks stalled Aug. 12, Oregon Nurses Association spokesperson Claudia Brown said.

"I'm optimistic," said Barbara Oien, chairwoman for the local union chapter. "I think that we have a chance."

The nurses voted unanimously Aug. 22 to organize an informational rally for Thursday if the mediation session slows today.

"We are hopeful that we are able to reach a fair and satisfactory agreement with the O.N.A. through the collective bargaining process," said Terry Finklein, Columbia Memorial Hospital's chief executive officer. "While further comments at this time would be inappropriate, we certainly value our nurses and the many contributions they make as they serve our patients on a daily basis."

The nurses' contract expired in July and they have been working without one since then, Brown said. "That's not unusual," she said. "Traditionally you just work under the rules of the existing contract."

The hospital has experienced a nursing shortage and recently has hired nurses from temporary employment agencies to fill shifts, Oien said.

Agencies often charge much more for temporary nurses than the hospital pays its staff nurses. Oien said she believes a better salary and benefits package would attract permanent staff to the hospital.

"A lot of the issues really for the nurses go back to what they see as an erosion in their ability to provide quality patient care," said Alan Yoder, labor representative and O.N.A. attorney.

The nurses also hope for a more permanent medical plan. The current contract allows the hospital to change medical plans in the middle of a contract period.

"Our biggest complaint is them changing our plan without our consent," Oien said.

While the current picket is not a strike, Columbia Memorial's nurses can strike legally, Yoder said. The nurses would have to vote again and provide notice to the hospital before a walk out, he said.

Both sides expressed the desire to end the dispute before a walk-out.