In a media advisory published January 2, 2020, the nurses’ union, SEUI Healthcare 1199 NW, promised 13,000 healthcare workers, employed at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle Washington and other sister medical facilities in the state to go on strike. The strike will be a joint effort by SEUI Healthcare 1199 NW, WSNA (Washington State Nurses Association), and UFCW 21 (another worker union) as they join forces to affect change to protect themselves and their patients.
Swedish Medical Center is a nonprofit healthcare facility, the largest in the Seattle area, comprised of five hospital campuses. Its management was taken over by healthcare juggernaut Providence in 2012. Nurses and healthcare workers report that since the takeover, working conditions have declined affecting patient care, high staff turnover rates, and stress. While the corporation profits rise, and numbers of patients rise; staffing levels remain dangerously low as well as worker compensation and benefits.
A Little History
This isn’t the first time Swedish has had problems in recent years. In February of 2017, the Seattle Times published an article titled; High Volume, Big Dollars, Rising Tension. The findings of the Times’ investigation are troubling and led to a bigger federal investigation after its publication. Interesting to note, healthcare workers reported at that time a tense work environment, fear of retribution, intimidation, and “massive caseloads”.
The findings of the Seattle Times report were concerning especially this finding specific to nursing staff: “The increased volume of patients has left medical staffers from the operating room to the intensive-care unit with massive caseloads, dividing the attention of ICU nurses who would otherwise provide one-on-one patient care. A loophole in a Washington state law designed to enhance patient safety has forced some nurses at Cherry Hill to be on duty for 20 hours in a day.”
According to a press release published by SEUI, the outrage sparked the flames of this fire when it became known that Providence CEO pay shot up to over $10.5 million. Providence brought in $24 billion in profit for the year 2018, and over $970 million in profit before the end of 2019. Healthcare workers are angry that while the company is turning over massive profits, their basic demands for improved working conditions are being denied.
Have the Healthcare Workers and Unions Been Doing Anything to Avoid a Strike?
Turns out that, yes, they have. According to their press release, workers across disciplines have been working together to find solutions:
“Since April of 2016, the 280 nurses, chaplains, hospice aides, social workers, clerks and other caregivers have been proposing urgent solutions to Providence executives, including more manageable workloads so they can provide compassionate care, and fair wages that recruit and retain qualified staff. Executives have rejected almost all proposals, instead repeatedly breaking federal labor law by violating caregivers’ rights.”
To add insult to injury; healthcare workers and nurses at other Providence-run hospitals in the state are receiving proposals that would slash benefits from their already deficient healthcare plans that have high deductibles.
What Are They Asking For?
Nurses and Healthcare Worker Proposals Include:
- increase staffing to safer levels
- staff retention
- address workload concerns
- address safety concerns
- build a culture of diversity and inclusion
Management Proposals Include:
- new committees
- new layers of management
- insufficient pay increases
- reduced paid time off
After reading the proposals from both sides, you have to wonder at management proposing new layers of management and reduced paid time off. Nurses and healthcare workers are already upset at the pay compensation going to the CEO. How would hiring more management (who would presumably make more money because of their elevated position in the hierarchy) address staff retention and workload? Reducing paid time off, for nurses and caregivers who are already reporting being overworked seems counterintuitive as well.
The Battle Continues
Following the press announcement by the three nurses and caregivers unions that set the date for the strike to occur January 14; Swedish-Providence management sat down with representatives from the unions overnight. These overnight talks must have given the unions hope, because the following day, January 3rd, SEUI Healthcare 1199 NW announced plans to postpone the strike in favor of “expedited bargaining”. According to the announcement, ” UFCW 21 and the Washington State Nurses Association have made similar progress in overnight talks and have paused their strike notices. All three unions have committed to ongoing negotiations in the coming days.”
Hope After All
What a discouraging story, and yet it seems now, that there is hope! These nurses and caregivers have come together to unite under a common cause: safe working conditions and quality patient care. As you can see, this has been a long and exhausting battle. At times, I am sure these nurses and healthcare workers have felt frustration and hopelessness, and yet, here they are back at the table for negotiations.
According to NFCW 21:
“joint discussions with all three unions – UFCW 21, SEIU Healthcare 1199 NW and WSNA – and Providence have resulted in the most significant progress to date. As a result of this progress, and the commitment to hold ongoing negotiations during the coming days, the unions have agreed to pause today’s filing of the 10-day notice of a strike.”
Are You an Advocate?
Are you part of a nurse or healthcare worker union? Are you interested in advocacy? This Swedish-Providence story is an example in real-time of how nurses can be great advocates for themselves, and for their ability to give their patients the quality care that they deserve. If you struggle with some of these issues in your workplace, or if you feel a desire to involve yourself in advocacy for other nurses and patient care, maybe getting connected is the answer for you. Here’s a list of some (probably not all) nursing advocacy groups to get you started:
Keep in mind, that is just a starter list. If you are a nurse who specializes, consider looking for a group within your specialty! Those nurses and healthcare workers in Washington are showing us all that our voices can be heard when we unite!