My family and I celebrated Thanksgiving on Tuesday last week, because I had to work my shift as a registered nurse at St. Elizabeth Hospital from five p.m. to five a.m. during the holiday. Those are the kinds of sacrifices that St. Elizabeth nurses readily make for our community so we can give the highest quality care to our neighbors year-round. But in recent years, executives at CHI Franciscan, the large corporate owner of St. Elizabeth, have been prioritizing profits above the needs of patients, making it difficult to provide the care our community deserves.
I have been a nurse for 26 years, have lived in Enumclaw almost that whole time, and have raised three kids here. People work in healthcare in to order contribute and serve. We meet our patients at their lowest point, when they are sick, scared, confused and vulnerable. Sometimes we are bringing new life into the world, sometimes we are saving a life, and sometimes we are comforting patients and their families at the end of life. Nursing is a very rewarding career, but nobody goes into this field to make a lot of money or have good hours.
We do, however, want to have safe staffing levels so we can be proud of our work and devote enough time and attention to each patient to ensure they receive compassionate care. Too often, St. Elizabeth nurses are overworked, understaffed and burned out. One reason that we are understaffed is that management does not always meet the staffing “matrix,” which are the written guidelines for staffing levels. We also do not have break relief nurses in every unit, so we sometimes can’t even eat our lunch or go to the bathroom.
Another important reason we are understaffed is that our wages are lower than other area hospitals. The majority of St. Elizabeth nurses live in King County and pay King County taxes, but we do not make King County wages. This not only makes it hard to pay our bills, provide for our children and heat our homes, it also impedes the hospital’s ability to recruit and retain qualified nurses.
In my small department we have lost a lot of people, about five or six nurses have left just in the last couple years. There are vacant positions in departments throughout the hospital. The nurses who stay have to fill in, and when you have to work too many 12 hour shifts and don’t get enough sleep, mistakes can be made and patient safety can be put at risk. Errors are not acceptable when people’s lives are at stake.
In order to solve these problems, my fellow nurses and I have been trying to negotiate a new union contract since May. Our proposals include safe staffing levels; maintaining our affordable health benefits so we can keep ourselves and our families healthy; and raising wages to area standards.
Instead of listening to our concerns, executives have rejected our staffing proposals and threatened to increase our healthcare costs which are already a financial burden for many nurses, especially those with children under their insurance.
St. Elizabeth certainly has more than enough resources to improve patient care standards. Our hospital is very financially healthy with a large profit margin, and CHI Franciscan had $1.4 billion in revenue in 2018. Recently, CHI came under the control of CommonSpirit Health, the largest “non-profit” health system in the country by revenue, with over 700 facilities throughout 21 states.
Too often, corporate executives in distant board rooms do not know what is happening on the floors of local hospitals. Their heads are buried in numbers, while nurses are at the bedside. We don’t want to wait until something happens to a patient for that to be the wake-up call. St. Elizabeth nurses are urgently calling on executives to hear our voices now, and invest in quality patient care and good jobs for our community.
Sherry Tomt, member leader of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW