Nurses at Swedish Medical Centers across Washington state could go on strike depending on 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. Providence bought Swedish in 2012, and ever since then, union representatives and employees say, they’ve been concerned about vacancies, staff turnover and low pay.
If, after the Dec. 30 bargaining session union members believe significant headway hasn’t been made, they could call a strike. A strike was authorized following negotiations in November.
Carol Lightle, a nurse at Swedish’s Issaquah campus and a member of the bargaining committee, said authorizing a potential strike was a tough decision.
“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, a nurse since 2001, said Swedish was once the “gold standard” for health care. But ever since Providence took over in 2012, she continued, the pay has not remained competitive, and nurses have been forced to live farther from the hospitals where they work.
Lightle said she believes wages contribute to the 900 vacant positions company-wide, some 600 of them in nursing alone.
Other positions, like a team of IV nurses, were 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 corners — we are dealing with lives,” she said. “We’re literally taking care of very vulnerable patients.”
Robin Wyss, secretary-treasurer for the SEIU chapter that represents nurses at Swedish, said the bargaining unit has made proposals in three main areas: 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 have 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.
The union alleges 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,” Wyss said.
Swedish spokesperson Tiffany Moss issued an email statement saying the company was “disappointed” that SEIU 1199NW had issued a press release announcing an ‘imminent strike’ 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. The release noted that CEO Rod Hochman had received $10.5 million in compensation 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.”