Tacoma nurses say strike is preventable, but feel-good hospital mission statements aren’t enough

Annalise Rutt (center), a registered nurse from Tacoma, joins fellow nurses as they rally for a new contract during a March 21 informational picket outside St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma.
Annalise Rutt (center), a registered nurse from Tacoma, joins fellow nurses as they rally for a new contract during a March 21 informational picket outside St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma. News Tribune file photo

A mission to heal, a promise to care – that’s the mission statement for St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma. But for the nearly 1,200 nurses at St. Joe’s, it’s a broken promise.

It can be frustrating to explain the obvious to someone who isn’t listening. That’s why our nurses were shocked by a June 28 question from hospital leaders:

“Why is management so out of touch with the frontline nurses’ interests?”

Why indeed? Nurses have been negotiating a new contract for 10 months while continuing to provide life-saving care for critically ill patients every day. After 14 bargaining sessions, we still don’t have an agreement.

Maybe another question for administration is in order: What part of safety don’t you understand?

St. Joseph’s nurses are considering a strike vote, a rare step we do not take lightly. While compensation is part of the discussion, our top priority is safety: for patients and the community we serve.

Hospital administrators should be acutely aware of what we need to deliver quality care. Our nurses have consistently communicated what we need, in multiple venues throughout the year in addition to contract negotiations.

If nurses are expected to take care of more patients who are sicker, we simply need more nurses to do that. Administrators know this, but they are dragging out contract talks on the backs and hearts of nurses who deliver the lifeline to patient care.

Nurses are licensed by the state, not the hospital. We are held accountable for the quality of care we provide, often while delivering emergency services amid staffing shortages and resource gaps. At the end of the shift, it’s a patient’s life and a nurse’s license that are on the line.

We know St. Joe’s can afford to invest in safer staffing. Over the past five years, the hospital earned record profits totaling more than $408 million, according to the Washington Department of Health. In 2018, St. Joe’s secured a 12-percent profit margin ($84 million), five times the average profit margin (2.3 percent) of nonprofit hospitals in Washington.

Administrators acknowledge patient volumes have risen but continue to cut staffing despite escalating patient needs. Safety, much like proper medical care, means addressing the problem directly. You don’t cure an infection with a bandage. You treat it and prevent it from spreading.

You don’t risk quality care by routinely asking nurses to take heavier patient care assignments. You set minimum staffing standards to address surging demands.

In our negotiations to date, St. Joe’s administration has shown little recognition of these priorities. In a recent survey, more than 73 percent of our front-line nurses who responded said they have patient-safety problems on their units. More than 81 percent said nurses work in a “crisis mode,” trying to do too much too quickly.

Feel-good hospital mission statements mean nothing if you refuse to live up to them. While our CEO’s salary rose 86 percent between 2015 and 2017, administration has refused to allocate resources in our contract that we believe will allow us to recruit and retain the nursing staff necessary to ensure quality and safe patient care.

They add rules, procedures and algorithms while reducing the number of caregivers. We don’t need more hoops to jump through and boxes to check. We need more nurses.

A strike is a last resort. We would prefer to accept a contract that recognizes our concerns. We believe our expectations are reasonable.

As a flagship hospital in our community, St. Joe’s should commit to safe staffing standards that serve its stated mission and ensure the safety of its patients and nurses.

Janet Stewart and Linda Burbank are registered nurses at St. Joseph’s Medical Center. They’re also co-chairs for the Washington State Nurses Association, which represents nearly 1,200 nurses at the Tacoma Hilltop hospital.