St. Elizabeth nurses sign new contract with CHI Franciscan

The new agreement helps ensure safe staffing levels and increases in pay.

St. Elizabaeth nurses took to the streets Dec. 4, 2019, for an information picket line. SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, their union, aided their effort with a mobile billboard that drove around Enumclaw. Photo by Ray Miller-Still

St. Elizabaeth nurses took to the streets Dec. 4, 2019, for an information picket line. SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, their union, aided their effort with a mobile billboard that drove around Enumclaw. Photo by Ray Miller-Still

The new year appears to be bringing good tidings to the nurses of St. Elizabeth Hospital.

Since May 2019, CHI Franciscan and SEIU Healthcare 1199NW — the union that represents St. Elizabeth’s 124 registered nurses — have been negotiating a new contract, but due to a lack of progress, nurses took to the streets last December for an informational picket line to inform the public of the issues going on inside the hospital.

A Jan. 9 press release announced that a tentative agreement was reached, and after votes were tallied Jan. 10, the contract was unanimously ratified by a supermajority (60 percent or more) of workers.

Overall, there were two main agenda items SEIU wanted CHI to address, the first being increased staffing and safety; nurses claimed that St. Elizabeth did not always have enough of nurses on the clock, which put patients at risk.

According to St. Elizabeth’s 2019 plan, the hospital is supposed to have one nurse to every five patients in acute care, one nurse to three patients in the progressive care unit, and one nurse to two patients in the intensive care unit. On average, the hospital has roughly 14 patients daily.

Charge nurse Kelly Patton said the one-to-five ratio is too much for nurses to handle.

“A one-to-five ratio is really difficult. You don’t get the care that you deserve at one-to-five versus one-to-four, which is what the nursing guidelines say,” Patton said during the December rally. “One-to-four is safe.”

She also said the hospital sometimes “flirts” with not even having a second ICU nurse.

Sherry Tomt, a nurse, union leader and member of the SEIU bargaining team, said staffing was so low, there were no “break nurses,” who take over when other nurses need to use the restroom or have a meal.

“It’s becoming a law that you have to have a break nurse, but I would say nine times out of 10, we don’t have a break nurse,” Tomt said. “So you have a choice of, do I go to the bathroom or do I eat? And what I tell people is, if that’s your choice, go to the bathroom. If you pass out from hunger, at least you won’t wet yourself.”

According to a press release, the new agreement details that St. Elizabeth is committing “to adhere to the written staffing guidelines in every hospital unit,” and that a neutral arbitrator will be available to address conflicts.

Tomt elaborated in a recent email interview, stating that the patient-to-nurse ratios are not being adjusted, but they “did put in wording to follow these guidelines more closely,” which included more break nurses, Tomt said.

COMPETITIVE PAY

The second agenda item for SEIU was pay; St. Elizabeth nurses claimed they were not making competitive wages, which meant it was difficult to hire new nurses as well as retain them, which also made staffing difficult.

Tomt described the nurses as making “Pierce County wages” while most of the nurses lived and work in King County.

SEIU also said that St. Elizabeth could afford to pay better wages, citing the fact CHI CEO Ketul Patel was compensated $2.6 million in 2018, a 46 percent increase from the $1.8 million he was compensated the previous year, and the hospital itself had $1.4 billion in revenue in 2018.

Not only will nurses be receiving a 6.5 percent increase in pay for ratifying the new contract, but they will also get a retroactive 3.5 percent increase back to April 1, 2019, when their last contract ended.

“The retroactive raises were a significant achievement which employers commonly reject, but St. Elizabeth nurses prevailed on this point, insisting it would help with recruitment and retention,” the press release said.

CHI has also agreed to giving nurses an additional 3.5 percent raise on April 1, 2021; increased premium pay for charge nurses and hospital resource nurses; increased pay for taking on extra shifts; additional protection of the 15 percent premium pay for nurses who work “per diem” or on an intermittent basis; and more.

“With this victory we’ve shown that nurses at St. Elizabeth stand together as a team and with our community – it’s truly all for one and one for all,” Patton, who has worked at the hospital for the past 10 years, said in the press release. “Because we’re more of a rural hospital, you have to raise pay up to area standards, or you just can’t attract new nurses. We improved pay for every type of nurse, and that will help a lot with staffing.

“The bottom line comes down to this: we’re all nurses committed to our community, and we’re willing to raise hell to ensure safe care for our patients,” she continued.

Cary Evans, the vice president of communications and government affairs with CHI Franciscan, said the hospital values its nurses and are “committed to providing a quality work environment with competitive wages and benefits that attract and retain the very best. We are happy to have now reached an agreement with our nurses.”

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