Unless negotiators for Swedish return to the table between now and the end of the month, thousands of nurses, caregivers, and other hospital staff organized with SEIU 1199 will walk off the job at all Swedish campuses from Jan. 28 to Jan. 30. That's 8,000 nurses pouring out of hospitals in First Hill, Cherry Hill, Ballard, Edmonds, Issaquah, Mill Creek, and Redmond.
In a statement, Swedish says it's "prepared for a strike" and plans to hire scabs.
Contract negotiations between hospitals owned by Providence, such as Swedish, and a coalition of unions called Providence United Coalition have dragged on since last April. In the last few months, Providence has reached tentative agreements with workers at some of those hospitals, but workers at Swedish are still fighting for a better contract.
As I wrote last summer, a thousand workers picketed Swedish's First Hill campus. Later on in December, the unions approved a full-on strike, which prompted Swedish to call everybody back to the bargaining table in early January. Both sides say they bargained 24/7 for a week, with negotiators sleeping in shifts. Despite intense negotiations, they were unable to reach an agreement on staffing, wages and benefits, and more training and support for custodial staff.
The major sticking points appear to be wage increases and staffing issues.
Regarding staffing decisions, at a Friday afternoon press conference Swedish-Cherry Hill emergency room nurse Tricia Jenkins said the hospital only offered "empty promises of committee work and verbal promises that mean nothing."
Richard Keefe, an addiction and recovery nurse at Swedish-Ballard, said they want "an actual plan" to fill around 900 open positions for nurses and other caregivers at the hospital. These vacancies, health care workers say, lead to insufficient care for patients. Carol Lightle, who has worked at Swedish since 2007, said short staffing at Swedish-Issaquah resulted in a patient breaking her leg. Nurses couldn't respond quickly enough to the patient's alarm, which she triggered to ask for assistance leaving the bathroom. When nurses finally got to the room, they found the woman on the floor with a displaced leg. “You can count [such instances] a thousand-fold across our systems," Lightle said.
A spokesperson for Swedish said the union is asking management to "transfer authority over staffing decisions to the union, which would go against state law and grant SEIU an authority that no other healthcare union has."
A union spokesperson said nurses and health care workers who see the impact of short staffing at the bedside every day have "valuable" experience that must be considered. "Nurses are fighting for true accountability so that Providence doesn't continue to make cuts year after year that impede health care workers' ability to provide the best care they are able," the spokesperson said.
According to a list of contract proposals provided by Swedish, the union is also insisting on a 23.25% wage increase over four years, while Swedish is only offering an 11.25% wage increase over that same period. Swedish said their number would put them "at the top of the market."
The wage increases Swedish proposed would "lift the average salary of a Swedish caregiver working full-time to more than $70,000, and the average Swedish nurse salary into six figures by July 2020," according to a hospital spokesperson.
"There are a lot of factors that contribute to a contract that recruits and retains staff, including but not limited to wages," the union spokesperson said by way of response. "With over 900 vacancies, Swedish-Providence will have to do a lot of hard thinking about what it's going to take to recruit caregivers and incentivize them to stay."
The union pointed out that executive compensation and profits at Providence, which owns Swedish, have risen dramatically in recent years. According to their latest tax statements, Providence offers their 16 executives over $40 million dollars total, and in 2017 Providence pulled in $780 million in profit.