Health Care Staff Go on Strike at Providence-Swedish Hospitals

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Nearly 8,000 nurses and other healthcare workers at seven campuses of Swedish Healthcare in Seattle went on strike from January 28 – 30. Their main concerns centered on staffing levels and patient safety. While the strike has ended, no date has yet been set for renewed negotiations.

Run up to Swedish nurses’ strike

The striking nurses, CNA’s, radiology techs, pharmacy staff, and environmental services employees at Swedish Health Care are represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare 1199NW. The strike notice was given on January 17 after talks over a fair contract broke down after 9 months of negotiation.

The hospital group did not reopen negotiations to try and reach an agreement after the notice to strike was issued.  Instead, they announced that the previous offer, which they viewed as a good one, would be off the table. They would also hire replacement staff on a 5-day contract to cover the hospital during the strike action. Thousands of nurses and other staff were flown in from across the country, which the hospital claimed would cost around $10 million.

Reasons behind the Providence-Swedish nurses’ strike

The main concern leading to the strike action was patient safety and staffing levels which had been deteriorating rapidly.  According to union members the hospital group had failed to make a concrete commitment to staffing levels in its proposal, but instead offered committee work which had failed in the past.

Swedish Healthcare merged with Providence Health and Services, which operates across different states, in 2012. Nurses reported that they had experienced the effects of budget cuts since then. The company is reported to have made a profit of $700 million in 2017

“I was not a big proponent of the union,” said Lizette Vanunu an employee at Swedish since 1988. “When I saw the decline in the standards of care, I decided I need to step up to the plate. I need to be the voice of the patients that are fighting for their lives.”

Further reasons for the strike action were that salaries were not in line with the cost of living in Seattle which is the third most expensive city in the US – and this had a negative effect on staff recruitment and retention.  There was also serious concern over safety and security issues, where the hospitals did not even have simple measures like metal detectors in place.

Hostile treatment by management during strike

During the strike, some emergency departments and labor and delivery units were closed. Elective surgeries and non-urgent procedures were canceled. 

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Night shift nurses, who were on duty at the start of the strike action, reported that they had experienced considerable hostility from management. They were also not allowed to hand over to the replacement staff and were escorted from the hospital premises by security staff.

The hospital issued a statement explaining that it was a best practice that replacement staff did not come face-to-face with striking employees, in case of intimidation. They also said that full handoffs were given to clinical managers and the doctors on duty.

The entrances to the hospital were secured with chain link fences for the duration of the strike, and tactical guards were placed across the campus. Nurses expressed their disbelief over the hospitals’ expectation that the striking healthcare staff, who work ceaselessly to save lives, would resort to violence.

The end of the Providence-Swedish nurses’ strike

At the close of the strike on Friday, January 29, only around 2,000 of the striking staff were allowed back to work. Union members claimed that this was an illegal partial lockout.

However, Swedish claimed that they had warned the employees about this in advance as the agencies required contracts of at least five days for replacement staff. Staff members were recalled as needed and all were back at work by Sunday morning.

New negotiations between the union and Swedish-Providence have not yet been scheduled.  A hospital spokesperson explained that the next meeting would be called by the federal mediators which they were bringing in. 

Frieda Paton is a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing education. Her passion for nursing education, nursing issues and advocacy for the profession were ignited while she worked as an education officer, and later editor, at a national nurses’ association. This passion, together with interest in health and wellness education since her student days, stayed with her throughout her further career as a nurse educator and occupational health nurse. Having reached retirement age, she continues to contribute to the profession as a full-time freelance writer. In the news and feature articles she writes for Nurseslabs, she hopes to inspire nursing students and nurses on the job to reflect on the trends and issues that affect their profession and communities - and play their part in advocacy wherever they find themselves.

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