Matt Driscoll

St. Joseph nurses ready to strike: ‘There’s a lot at stake,’ including patient safety

Nurses like Linda Burbank, an RN at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma for the last 18 years, say they’ve been “devalued and disrespected” for too long.

“Enough is enough,” she insisted in a phone interview with The News Tribune on Thursday, citing what she described as potential patient safety issues at the CHI Franciscan hospital as her biggest concern. She’s not alone.

Since November, St. Joseph’s registered nurses — 1,100 of them, represented by the Washington State Nurses Association — have been working without a contract. They’ve been locked in ongoing negotiations that have produced little but animus despite 15 bargaining sessions, according to union officials, and the recent involvement of federal mediator.

Earlier this month, the nurses rejected CHI Franciscan’s latest offer, marking the second time the nurses have done so.

Now, Burbank said, nurses are preparing to take a rare, last ditch step: Walking the picket line.

Nurses are “activated and mobilized,” she said, and strike preparation meetings were scheduled Friday, June 21, and Monday, June 24. The meetings, according to union representatives, will cover things like how nurses can financially prepare for a strike.

A single line on the union’s website drives the severity of the situation home:

“STRIKE AUTHORIZATION VOTE: Soon” it reads.

“This is new territory,” Burbank said when asked what a nurses strike at St. Joseph might look like.

She’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.

We should all hope that it doesn’t come to that. There’s little question that nurses serve as the backbone of care at hospitals like St. Joe, and when they’re angry enough to consider walking off the job — particularly about patient safety — we should listen carefully.

So should CHI Franciscan.

Reached for comment, CHI Franciscan Vice President of Communications and Government Affairs Cary Evans responded with a statement via email.

“We are disappointed that we have now twice reached a tentative agreement on this contract, both endorsed and recommended by the nursing union, yet rejected by the nurses,” Evans wrote. “We are committed to a lasting, market competitive agreement with our nurses.”

Evans added that CHI Franciscan “is committed to a safe and healing environment for all patients and staff.”

“We always insist on the safety and health of our patients and staff above all else as we continue to serve all patients who come through our doors,” Evans wrote, going on to specifically cite what he described as a “security task force” at the hospital, which he said “is focused on maintaining and improving workplace safety.”

The task force’s work, Evans said, “includes developing and implementing new protocols, procedures, programs and training around violence prevention.”

Nursing strikes in Washington state are relatively rare. According to spokeswoman Ruth Schubert, the WSNA has called only a handful of strikes in the past. Others nurse strikes not called by the WSNA, she said, have often been “for a limited duration rather than being open ended until an agreement is reached.”

The issues that have brought the situation at St. Joe’s to this fractured juncture, however, are less rare.

Raises, nurse retention and a request for some form of back pay that the nurses say they’ve missed out on by working without a contract remain items of contention in negotiations.

Schubert said the demand for substantial staffing reforms — including asking CHI Franciscan to “commit to minimum staffing standards and to ensure established staffing plans are followed” — is the main issue for nurses now seriously considering a strike.

Burbank, who works in acute care, said that CHI Franciscan staffing decisions have stretched nurses so thin at St. Joseph that patient care “may be compromised.” She said nurses who might have had four patients to care for in the past now routinely have up to six.

Burbank also said that charge nurses — who typically manage things like staffing and help respond to and avoid emergencies — have been increasingly required to take on their own patient loads.

“Oftentimes,” Burbank said, nurses at St. Joseph “can’t even take a break.”

In the event of a strike, federal law requires the nurses’ union to provide 10 days notice to the hospital. According to a statement from CHI Franciscan sent to The News Tribune, should a strike occur, the hospital will take necessary steps to make sure patients still have the care they need.

“In the event of a strike, St. Joseph Medical Center will continue to provide uninterrupted quality health care and will take necessary steps to ensure any disagreement with the union will not detract from serving patients,” the statement reads.

According to Schubert, who responded to The News Tribune via email, if nurses at St. Joseph do call for a strike, ensuring patient care will also be a priority.

Schubert said that the WSNA’s strike preparation includes establishing what she described as a registered nurse emergency standby team committee that would “solicit volunteers to work in the case of an emergency.”

“The team would be prepared to respond to any emergency need that would threaten the life of any person in the community if such a patient were unable to receive appropriate nursing care due to the strike,” Schubert said.

“WSNA is ready to go back to the table to hear what management is willing to do to address the patient safety issues. We hope it doesn’t come to a strike, but we are prepared to strike if we have to,” Schubert said.

“The 1,100 nurses at St. Joe’s have been disrespected, we have been told we have a bad attitude, and we are ready to fight,” Schubert added. “The issues they are bargaining over have a significant impact on nurses’ ability to care for patients.”

That, according to Burbank, is the whole point — and why nurses like her are ready to walk off the job if necessary.

“There’s a lot at stake,” Burbank accurately assessed.

“This is something that has to be looked at seriously.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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