Nurses at Swedish Medical Centers across Washington state could go on strike depending the progress of contract negotiations at a Dec. 30 bargaining session.
Swedish is one of the largest health care providers in the state, and nurses represented by SEIU Healthcare 1199NW would join more than 13,000 strikers at 13 Providence locations across Washington. Swedish was bought by Providence in 2012, and since then, union representatives and employees said vacancies, staff turnover and low pay have been concerns.
If union members believe significant headway hasn’t been made following the Dec. 30 bargaining session, they could call a strike. A strike was authorized following negotiations in November.
Carol Lightle, a nurse at Swedish’s Issaquah campus and member of the bargaining committee said the possibility of a strike was one they didn’t make easily.
“We are basically fighting for — and our priorities as front-line caregivers are — safe staffing, we want to ensure that we are able to provide not only safe patient care but compassionate care,” Lightle said.
Lightle has been a nurse since 2001, and said Swedish used to be the “gold standard” of health care. But she said since Providence took over in 2012, the pay has not remained competitive and nurses are forced to live further from the hospitals they work at. She thinks wages contribute to Swedish having some 900 vacant positions company-wide, with about 600 of those positions being in nursing.
Other positions, like a team of IV nurses, was eliminated, forcing regular nurses to perform the procedures. Lightle said there’s a lack of quality supplies at the facilities too.
A press release issued by SEIU said there were more than 11,400 babies born at Swedish in 2018, which was 2,000 more than in 2015 but there were only three additional registered nurses in the labor and delivery department. Additionally, in 2018 the release said Swedish had nearly 1,600 patient beds, which is 145 more than in 2015 but there was only one additional service worker to clean and disinfect patient rooms.
“We came into nursing not to cut coners — we are dealing with lives,” she said. “We’re literally taking care of very vulnerable patients.”
Robin Wyss, secretary-treasurer for the SEIU chapter representing nurses at Swedish, said they made proposals in three main areas. Those areas included quality of patient care and under-staffing, recruitment and retention related to wages and benefits and racial justice and equity.
“What folks have seen over the last several years is the quality of care is declining because the resources to be able to provide that care has gotten worse,” Wyss said.
Since bargaining began in April, Swedish and the unions have been unable to find common ground, Wyss said. That sets the stage for nurses to strike in the coming weeks and the union is alleging unfair retaliation by management.
“We need a different environment to be able to bargain the agreement that will get Swedish back on the right track,” she said.
Swedish spokesperson Tiffany Moss issued an email statement saying they were “disappointed that SEIU 1199NW issued a press release announcing an ‘imminent strike’ in an effort to exert pressure on Swedish during the bargaining process.
“Given that we have another bargaining session scheduled for Monday, Dec. 30, we feel the union’s message is counterproductive,” the statement said. “A strike would not only represent a step backwards in our negotiations, but could prove disruptive to patients who rely on Swedish for their care.”
A press release from SEIU also said their asks were set against a background of increasing payoffs for Providence’s CEO. Compensation was noted for CEO Rod Hochman who received $10.5 million in 2017 while the company brought in $24 billion in revenue last year.
“We are here, we’re committed to the community in which we serve,” Lightle said. “We’re just asking for a little slice of that pie. We’re not even asking for what the CEOs are getting.”