Donned with umbrellas, clear plastic rain ponchos and oversized purple and white signs, dozens of striking nurses and staff walked out of Issaquah’s Swedish Hospital campus at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning (Jan. 28) beginning a three-day strike.
The strikers chanted several phrases as passing cars honked in support, including:
“Patients before profits!”
“We’re here! We’re strong! We’ll fight for patients all day long!”
“Quality care is under attack! What do we do? Stand up fight back!”
For nearly 10 months, Swedish-Providence nurses and staff have been proposing urgent solutions to improve patient care and jobs with upper management. Now, they say, enough is enough.
“We are the caregivers, we are the healers,” said Carol Lightle, a Swedish nurse and bargaining committee member. “We’re just out here to show our solidarity and to show that enough is enough. We’re here to stand up for our patients and our families and coworkers.”
Swedish is one of the largest health care providers Washington, and nurses represented by SEIU Healthcare 1199NW joined more than 13,000 strikers at 13 Providence locations across the state.
Providence bought Swedish in 2012. Since then, union representatives and employees said they are concerned about vacancies, staff turnover and low pay.
Their contract proposals include safe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios; manageable workloads for environmental service technicians so they can properly clean and disinfect patients’ rooms; safeguards against racial discrimination so everyone is treated with respect on the job; and fair wages that recruit and retain qualified staff.
According to the SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, Swedish-Providence has rejected almost all safe staffing proposals and has instead made proposals that would worsen short staffing and turnover, such as making workers’ schedules more unpredictable.
The union delivered its strike notice to management about 10 days ago. As a result, hospital officials withdrew their most recent offer and said they would not return to the bargaining table until the strike’s end.
For the duration of the three-day strike, the hospital has contracted hundreds of replacement nurses and staff and security guards to monitor the strikers.
“It’s quite intimidating seeing a lot of security guards here when we have very little to begin with,” Lightle said. “They have hired, as far as I know, 36 security agencies just to cover the Issaquah campus 24/7.”
Lightle said it felt like a slap in the face to know the hospital hired several security guards because the union has been asking for more security in their proposal.
“We have been asking in our proposal during bargaining for an increase in security in our facilities so we can come to work and feel safe, go home to our families and keep our patients safe,” she said. “They have the money, obviously, yet when we’re back in there they’re not willing to invest in the safety of us and the patients.”
Tiffany Moss, the communications manager at Swedish, said the additional support brought in is focused on the activities around the strike.
“The safety of our patients and caregivers is our top priority. We have a highly professional security team that provides excellent service to our organization,” she said. “The additional support we are bringing in this week is specifically focused on the coordination and activities surrounding the strike. Swedish is a safe environment and we take the safety of our people seriously.”
In a press release, Swedish Hospital said it will provide safe care for patients during the three-day strike though there will be some temporary adjustments to operations.
“Safe patient care is our number-one priority,” Dr. Guy Hudson, CEO, Swedish Health Services, said in the release. “As it has for 110 years, Swedish will continue to provide high-quality, compassionate care to patients and their families, even during the strike.”
According to the release, the Swedish bargaining team has been working diligently to avert a strike and reach agreements at the bargaining table both sides can support.
“While we respect our caregivers’ rights, we are disappointed the union has chosen this action,” Hudson said in a release. “Swedish has put forward a strong wages and benefits package at the bargaining table. In fact, these are the best benefits provided by any health care organization in the region.”
Lightle said the nurses and staff wouldn’t have turned down a great contract.
“They’re saying they’re giving us the best contract and that’s not true. Who would turn down a contract that is great? Why would we be out here when we’d rather be inside taking care of our patients?” Lightle said. “We’re not asking for extravagant bonuses or pay. We’re just simply wanting compensation that allows us to retain qualified nurses and safe staffing, most importantly.”
It is a possibility the strikers may not be able to go back to work as they plan to on Friday morning.
“There is some understanding that they might kick us out even though we said we were only striking for three days and that we want to come back to our patients,” Swedish nurse of nine years Catherine Chamberlain said. “They say that they’ve replaced us with replacement workers and they’ve had to contract with those workers for five days.”
Chamberlain said she and the other nurses and staff will be ready to come back to work Friday morning and if they get shut out, then they get shut out.
According to Moss, there is a five-day commitment to the temporary replacement workers.
“There is a five-day commitment to temporary replacement caregivers. Striking caregivers will be called back to work, in accordance with the contract provisions, as work becomes available,” she said.
Swedish will keep its doors open throughout the strike and decided to close urgent care and emergency services at its Ballard and Redmond campuses through the duration of the strike.
The five other emergency departments (First Hill, Cherry Hill, Issaquah, Edmonds and Mill Creek) will remain open during the strike. Individuals with life-threatening and urgent medical needs can go to one of Swedish’s open emergency departments for care or another local/regional emergency center.
“We want the community to know we’re putting them first, and that’s why we decided to walk out for these three days in hopes that it will put pressure on Swedish to put patients first, to put us first and to put the community first,” Lightle said. “They’re not invested in the community when they say, ‘We can replace you.’”