by Jasmine M. Pulido
As early as 6 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 9, hundreds of nurses used their days off, came on their work breaks, or arrived earlier than their scheduled shifts to picket outside the Seattle Children’s Hospital (SCH) main campus on Sand Point Way. Throughout the day, over 1,350 SCH nurses and supporters total showed up between 6–9 a.m. and then again from 12–3 p.m. demanding fair wage compensation, safer working conditions, and better resources to help pediatric nurses fulfill their job duties.
Little progress has been made to reach agreement over the past four months between the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA) and the SCH bargaining team since first commencing negotiations on April 14, 2022. “It’s been a struggle. The hospital rejected almost all proposals targeted towards retention and patient safety right off the bat,” said Travis Elmore Nelson, nurse representative for the WSNA. “We’ve bridged a lot of the gaps, but we still have a lot further to go.”
The WSNA bargaining team has been so unimpressed with the lack of staff support that both WSNA co-chairs, Edna Cortez and Kara Yates, recently published their own op-eds expressing their discontent on how issues like racial equity, staffing shortages, and the exploitation of a women-led workforce are being handled at SCH. “The board of directors have, quite frankly, refused to meet with the negotiating team,” said Lindsey Kirsch, USNA secretary and treasurer. CEO Jeff Sperring did meet for half an hour with a few nurses upon request, under predetermined conditions. Upon asking on two occasions if Seattle Children’s had a response regarding the two op-eds, no comment was given.
Many of the signs at the picket displayed the message “Staffing Is Safety,” implying that working short-staffed for such a long period of time is creating a threat to safety for nurses. In just a little over a year, the exit rate of nurses from SCH has skyrocketed from 3% in January 2020 to a whopping 20% in January 2022, resulting in a shortage of approximately 400 nurses. “That’s significant, especially for a specialty pediatric hospital,” WSNA attorney Pamela Chandran told the Emerald. “The nurses are exhausted, they’re burned out, and there’s frustration on multiple levels. … They’re hemorrhaging nurses right now.”
Currently, SCH has dealt with staffing shortages by paying short-term travel nurses to fill gaps in employment. In these cases, travel nurses with less specialty experience sign short-term contracts and receive anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 in hiring bonuses, presenting them with the option to make up to three times as much as long-term nurses. Meanwhile, with inflation rates ballooning to as high as 10.1% in the Puget Sound region over the past year, more experienced nurses continued to offer highly skilled services during a pandemic, but have received only a 3% pay raise and no retention bonuses. Depending on the hospital unit, travel nurses can make up anywhere between 25% to 50% of staff on any given day. As a result, long-term nurses often quit to assume the more lucrative positions of travel nurses.
“Hospitals are so business-oriented that they make bad decisions — short-term solutions instead of investing in nursing,” said Therese Hill, ICU nurse and floating nurse for NICU, CICU, and PICU units. Even a 44% raise for every permanent nurse would still fail to match the projected annual expense of $59 million for travel nurses. Jen Morgan, senior director of public engagement at SCH, commented, “According to Seattle Children’s payroll data, the average full-time, base-pay salary for an RN at Seattle Children’s is $102,000, and our most tenured nurses’ base pay can be $160,500 or more. As negotiations continue, we all agree that putting patients first is our highest priority.”
Another point of contention for nursing staff has been health equity outcomes and the lack of diverse representation in staffing, which the WSNA has been bringing to the table for years. After Dr. Ben Danielson’s resignation in 2020 brought many of these aspects into the spotlight, the hospital still clocks in at a dismal 1.6% rate when it comes to staffing African American nurses. According to Cortez’s op-ed, of 1,700 nurses at the hospital, only 27 are African American. Dr. Danielson’s resignation also led to the initiation of an independent investigation on systemic racism by Washington, D.C., law firm Covington & Burling. While a concise summary of findings were shared with SCH’s staff, many feel unsatisfied that the full report was never provided despite protests for transparency.
After the investigation concluded, SCH drew up a commitment to an anti-racism action plan, established a Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (HEDI) council to oversee the plan, and nurses formed Health Equity and Activism through Learning (HEAL) committees for each unit. However, according to Te’onna Adams, charge nurse on the F3 medical unit, lead of their HEAL council, and one out of the small population of Black nurses at SCH, these steps have felt more performative than transformative. “They aren’t really able to speak about the goals, specifically. They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s a great question. We’ll circle back,’” Adams said. “Unfortunately, they don’t circle back or have an open conversation.”
Similarly, Adams stated that moderated town hall meetings weren’t a space to feel heard, but structured to only focus narrowly on areas the hospital wanted to discuss. When asked by the South Seattle Emerald for comment regarding its racial equity plans, SCH furnished quarterly reports on its Health Equity and Anti-Racism Action Plan. These reports publish ratings of progress in percentages as well as specific accomplishments, but with little raw data to show how these progress markers are determined.
SCH is the top-ranked pediatric hospital in Washington State, ranks third in the Pacific region (the largest region of any children’s hospital in the country, including Washington, Oregon, Hawai‘i, California, and Alaska), and ranks as one of the top children’s hospitals in the country by U.S. News & World Report. It is one of the wealthiest hospitals in the state; SCH’s financial statements show net profits of $108 million and $359 million in fiscal year 2020 and 2021, respectively. SCH has also received federal relief in grants through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) during the pandemic, which has boosted it to $4.3 billion in net assets at the end of the 2021 fiscal year.
The current contract for SCH nurses expired on July 31, and nurses are now working on a conditional extension that will remain in place while the new contract is being negotiated. In an official statement, SCH stated, “While we cannot share the details of ongoing negotiations, we are diligently working to make progress and are committed to working collaboratively with the WSNA in order to reach a fair agreement as soon as possible. Our next bargaining session is on Monday and includes a federal mediator.”
According to Nelson, if terms of agreement can’t be reached by Monday, Aug. 15, the WSNA is prepared to take a vote of “no confidence” in CEO Jeff Sperring on Aug. 17 and go on strike.
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that the percentage of African American nurses staffed at Seattle Children’s is 0%; this article was updated on 08/15/2022 with the correct percentage of 1.6%. The number of nurses was also changed from 13 to 27. The Emerald apologizes for this error.
Jasmine M. Pulido (she/her/siya) is a Filipina American writer-activist and small business owner living in Seattle. She’s currently pursuing her Master of Arts degree in Social Change.
📸 Featured image by Jasmine M. Pulido.
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