Caregivers across Washington state unite to fight profit-driven healthcare
SEATTLE — In a press conference held today outside Swedish Medical Center First Hill Campus, nurses and other healthcare workers representing caregivers from three unions announced their readiness to strike if parent company Providence does not come back to the bargaining table with fair contract proposals.
The 8,000 SEIU Healthcare 1199NW members at Swedish-Providence, including nurses, techs, dietary and environmental services, and social workers and counselors, announced that they voted to authorize a strike, with a supermajority of member on every Swedish campus voting in favor of the strike.
Unionized workers at Swedish-Providence join nurses and healthcare workers from Providence-owned Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital in Spokane, Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, Centralia Hospital, Regional Medical Center in Everett and St. Peter Hospital in Olympia in voting to authorize a strike. Union members say these caregivers comprise 15,000 Washington State healthcare workers who have authorized strikes.
“I didn’t become a nurse to provide minimal care,” said Carol Lightle, a charge nurse in a Medical Oncology unit at Swedish Issaquah. “Every healthcare worker could tell you that, and all of us face the same issues. The short staffing is the same in Environmental Services, our coworkers who disinfect patient’s rooms; it’s the same in Materials Services where our coworkers resupply our units; it’s the same in nutrition services. We work together as a team to deliver patient care. And when a part of our team is short-staffed our patients feel it.”
Caregivers note the contrast between the resources their hospitals have received and the revenues and reserves accumulated by multibillion-dollar nonprofit hospital system Providence.
“Sacred Heart has always been Spokane’s hospital. Our hospital. But we have been fighting for more than a year for safe staffing levels and benefits we have already earned,” said KT Raley-Jones, a cardiac intensive care nurse at Sacred Heart. “While we have been at the table working to protect our patients and our community, Providence pocketed nearly $1 billion in profits in the first half of this year alone.”
In Washington State, Providence St. Joseph Health operates 14 hospitals, hundreds of ambulatory care sites, and generates 31 percent of the system’s $24 billion in operating revenue, or $7.6 billion. Providence paid its top 15 executives $41 million in 2018, and had over $24 billion in operating revenue and more than $11 billion in cash reserves that same year.
The expansion of Providence in the Washington State market was initially welcomed by some workers, but they say the result has been a focus on the bottom line, not on patient care. “We expected big improvements when Kadlec affiliated with Providence. But so far, it has not been good for nurses, our patients or our community,” said Martha Galvez, a nurse in the Birth Center at Kadlec Regional Medical Center. “When corporations take over community hospitals, they prioritize the bottom line over the people in the community – nurses and patients. That’s what Providence is doing in the Tri-Cities and communities across Washington. That’s just wrong.”
The Providence expansion in Washington State is anticipated to continue beyond just medical facilities. In 2020, Providence will enter the commercial insurance market in Washington State by offering a health plan on the School Employees Benefit Board and on the Washington Health Benefits Exchange.
Staff shortages caused by layoffs and wages and benefits that do no recruit and retain staff can create safety concerns for patients and for staff. “Caregivers give so much of ourselves and can no longer keep ignoring the fact that safety is an issue on every campus,” said Valarie Howard, a telesitter in the electronic ICU at Swedish First Hill. “Feeling like we can’t do everything our patients need from us has even led to the mental health issues that we are now facing. This has really gotten to me, and it can make our job extremely dangerous.”
Healthcare workers say that while they have voted to authorize a strike, their end goal is a fair contract, which they hope to achieve through continued talks. They have noted their readiness to negotiate all day, every day and have called on Providence management to do its part to reach an agreement. At the same time, workers feel management has impeded their ability to bargain. “At Swedish-Providence where I work, workers have suffered unfair labor practices including termination for union activity, retaliation for protected union activity, and a failure to provide information necessary for bargaining,” said Howard.
“Every day, my colleagues and I work to provide the highest quality care for patients and their families. Providence’s priority seems to be about the bottom line and how to give the largest bonuses to executives. A strike won’t be easy, but we need to fight back to keep benefits we have earned,” said Rodney Powers, a Radiology Technician at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett.
In addition to concerns about their employer’s commitment to safe care, caregivers at Swedish and other Providence-owned hospitals believe management has committed multiple unfair labor practices, such as termination of workers for union activity, retaliation for protected union activity, and a failure to provide information necessary for bargaining. Such unfair labor practices are commonly used to weaken the solidarity of union members and are themselves a violation of federal law.
Workers remain united for their patients and against profit-driven care. “As an Emergency Room Assistant at Sacred Heart, I see patients and their families in times of greatest need,” said Jose Hernandez. “They are counting on Providence to provide the highest quality care, but too often Providence is putting profits first. I am ready to strike for my patients and ensure their health is always our top priority.”