by Jack Russillo
After nine months of failed negotiations with the executives of Providence-owned Swedish medical centers, nearly 8,000 nurses from seven Seattle-area hospitals organized a massive 72-hour strike and were hopeful of returning to work to care for their patients.
When thousands of nurses returned to at their respective campuses across the city after the strike ended Friday morning, groups of “tactical” security guards, armed with body cameras and weapons, were there to stop them from returning to work. Only a few pre-selected employees where allowed to pass through security checkpoints. Prior to the end of the strike, Swedish-Providence executives issued a statement threatening to lock out workers who participated in the strike.
When nurses attempted to return to work on Friday, many were told that they had been temporarily replaced—by travel nurses contracted for five days that are being paid from Providence’s $11 billion cash reserve. Some of the striking workers were told they could possibly return to their normal work schedules after the weekend. Swedish-Providence officials said that more than one thousand union-represented caregivers returned to their jobs after the strike ended and that the hospitals would allow more back “as work becomes available.”
The strike began as an effort to improve patient care and safety, create equitable staffing levels, and seek improvements in working conditions. Providence declined to enter into negotiations once the strike began on Tuesday morning. Swedish-Providence management announced that “all bets are off the table” and that “negotiations would have to begin over again,”. The healthcare union, SEIU 1199NW , an organization of over 30,000 nurses and healthcare workers in Washington State and Montana, says the second statement is a violation of labor law because it is an indication of bad faith bargaining.
“It’s unfortunate that we’ve ended up in a strike situation,” Cara Alderson, a charge nurse at Cherry Hill’s critical care unit for 15 years, said. “We’ve given them every opportunity to, even when negotiations went badly across nine months, and they’ve been dragging their feet and saving millions. I think that’s just their M-O. But make no mistake, this strike is about staffing and patient safety.”
There are currently about 900 open positions across Swedish-Providence’s Seattle-area campuses—600 of which are for registered nurses—and half of those openings have been available for 60 days or longer. In addition to a lack of competitive salaries for nurses—almost 40 percent of its employees are paid below the salary necessary to afford the average one-bedroom in the Seattle area—hospitals are often left understaffed and poorly-equipped to provide safe standards for all patients.
“When we were bargaining our last contract in 2015, it was clear to us that it was Providence at the head of the table,” Alderson said. “Things were different. It was fine at first, but especially in the last 18 to 24 months, we’ve seen it go full-on Providence. Supplies are sub-standard, things like bed pants don’t hold the weight of an adult and it’s undignifying. We run out of supplies. We don’t have the staffing that we need and we can’t take breaks sometimes and then are reprimanded for incidental overtime… We are bleeding nurses because they can’t afford to live here. Wages have to be a part of our retention and improvement plan. This is not a strike over wages, this is a strike over staffing and unfair labor practices.”
The union claims that this week’s post-strike partial lockout is a violation of federal labor law, and that management has committed other unfair labor practices more than a dozen times, including intimidating, surveilling and terminating multiple caregivers for speaking out. Recently, the National Labor Relations Board started legal proceedings against Swedish-Providence regarding the firing of three workers for union activity, and has opened investigations into many other possible violations.
Earlier this month, Swedish-Providence threatened to call the police to have Alderson, a union bargaining member, removed from its Cherry Hill hospital for engaging in protected union activity and then had its security agents follow Alderson around the facility, all in view of other bargaining unit members. This instance is one of at least 18 labor law violations that Swedish-Providence has instigated in the past six months and that SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, is attempting to seek justice for.
In their proposals to improve patient care and working conditions, workers are asking for safe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios; manageable workloads for environmental service technicians to properly clean and disinfect patients’ rooms; and fair wages that recruit and retain qualified staff.
“Staffing has become a more and more frequent problem,” Alderson said. “In late December, just in my unit at Cherry Hill, there were five assignments where charge nurses are taking on three patients, which is incredibly unsafe. It’s becoming more frequent and we are concerned. We are losing nursing staff and they are moving because they can’t afford to live in this city.”
Staffing ratios have reached “unsafe” levels of more than two patients for every nurse. To offset this dearth of caregivers, non-nurses have had to step in to provide adequate care to their patients, helping out by cleaning patient rooms or monitoring them.
“We’re so extremely busy and we may have a patient that has dementia and they’re waiting for a ride so they have to be kept inside the ER,” said Teresa DeLeon, who’s been a patient registrar in the emergency department at the Cherry Hill campus since before Providence purchased Swedish in 2012. “I’ve been asked to just keep an eye on the patient, because they’re just waiting for a ride, but that’s a big burden because I have to make sure I do my part of my work but then I also have to worry about the patient. A patient like that could leave and not know where to go and then they’re panicking, all because we don’t have the right resources in place.”
The caregivers’ previous contract expired in July 2019 and they have been working since then without a newly established agreement. In addition to the thousands of Swedish-Providence employees like Alderson and DeLeon that are hopeful that they can return to work under improved conditions soon, the striking healthcare workers have been supported by prominent groups and individuals outside of the industry. Presidential candidates from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have endorsed the union members’ fight for an improved work environment. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who stood with the nurses at Swedish’s First Hill campus on Friday morning as they attempted to return to work, also voiced her support.
“Returning the experienced, skilled caregivers of Swedish to caring for the members of our community is an immediate priority for all of us,” Durkan said. “While this strike may only have lasted three days, ultimately an expedited agreement is better for everyone in our city. We need this dispute resolved so that our dedicated staff can get back to work, serving our community, as quickly as possible.”
Jack Russillo is a journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood
Featured image: April Sims, Secretary treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, speaking at the nurses’ rally at Westlake Park on Wednesday night.