Hospital workers threaten ‘imminent strike’ at Swedish, claiming patient safety takes a back seat to CEO pay

Hospital workers marching the picket line in August 2019. With the sides no closer to agreement, the workers are threatening to strike early next year.

Nurses and caregivers announced on Thursday that they are moving closer to an “imminent strike,” claiming that patient care and severe understaffing have worsened and executive pay has ballooned since Swedish was taken over seven years ago by Providence, Washington’s largest health care corporation.

Hospital workers are represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and have been without a contract since July 30 of this year. If a strike occurs, more than 13,000 workers could walk off the job at various Swedish-Providence locations including Edmonds. All indications are that the sides are no closer to agreement since we last reported on this in August.

Whitney Powers works in the emergency room at Swedish-Edmonds, and is frustrated at what she sees as an erosion in both working conditions and patient care due to management cost-cutting.

Whitney Powers during the August 2019 informational picketing of Swedish Edmonds. Powers has worked in the emergency room at Swedish Edmonds for more than two years, and is concerned by what she sees as staffing cuts compromising patient safety.

“Being an emergency room nurse is very stressful, but I do this work because I love my patients and feel like I make a real difference in their lives,” she said. “I’ve been alarmed to see a steep decline in staffing levels throughout our hospital and nurses are overextended. The safe staffing standard in emergency rooms is one nurse for every four patients, but we are often required to care for five or six patients at a time, many of whom can be in severe distress. It’s frustrating that Swedish-Providence has the funds to improve patient safety and staffing, but instead they’re being misappropriated to huge executive pay packages.”

The next bargaining session is set for Dec. 30.

The union also alleges that Providence management has broken federal labor law multiple times with unfair labor practices including retaliating against and terminating employees for union activity; unlawfully surveilling employees; intimidating workers to stop them from speaking out; refusing to provide information necessary to bargain a fair contract; and refusing to bargain in good faith. The union has threatened that if “significant progress” is not made in the upcoming Dec. 30 bargaining session, caregivers will move to set an exact date to strike.

For its part, Swedish-Providence maintains that it has put a strong set of proposals on the table, including a new round of improvements on wages and benefits.

“We are disappointed that SEIU issued a press release announcing an ‘imminent strike’ in an effort to exert pressure on Swedish during the bargaining process,” Swedish-Providence said in a statement issued Friday. “Given that we have another bargaining session scheduled for Monday, Dec. 30, we feel the union’s message is counterproductive. A strike would not only represent a step backwards in our negotiations but could prove disruptive to patients who rely on Swedish for their care. We are serious about reaching an agreement through bargaining and hope SEIU shares our commitment to find solutions that work. We will continue to bargain in good faith, and we remain willing to utilize the assistance of federal mediators to move the negotiations forward.”

— Story and photos by Larry Vogel


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