Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA), representing over 700 registered nurses at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, is holding an informational picket today to highlight issues critical to patient safety and nurse retention during difficult contract negotiations. Nurses are concerned about patient safety and ensuring that St. Joseph can continue to recruit and retain great nurses. Management has proposed a radical change to the sick time system and drastic benefit cuts.
The administration is resisting nurse input on patient care and staffing at the bedside, including WSNA’s proposal to add “acuity and intensity” to the contract staffing language. This language would encourage staffing levels to reflect not just the number of patients, but also the complexity and level of care they require. Nurses are fighting for a voice in staffing decisions and assert that nurse staffing should be determined by the needs of the patients, not just the number of patients.
“Nurses are the frontline of patient care. We’re trying to ensure that nurse staffing is responsive to patient care needs, and nobody knows what nurses need here better than the nurses. I want to feel like this hospital is a partner with us and values our skills and expertise. That means listening to nurses. On issues like staffing and sick time, our interest is in coming up with solutions that allow us to deliver excellent care to this community,” said Sarah Newell, RN, a nurse at St. Joseph.
Nurses are concerned that sweeping changes to sick time would discourage nurses from staying home when they are sick. Management is seeking to eliminate the extended illness days that nurses currently accrue and replacing it with a third party insurance company that would offer short term disability. Nurses would be paid a fraction of their salary during this sick time and the insurance company would also have the right to deny their claims. Nurses would also be only covered for their own illnesses, so they would not be able to use this insurance system to care for a sick child or family member.
“We need to make sure that nurses can stay home when they’re sick or need to take care of their families. You need a healthy nurse at the bedside. Many nurses are the primary wage earner for their families and simply can’t afford to take a pay cut while they are trying to recover from an illness. As a nurse here and someone in this community, I don’t want a situation where financial hardship is an obstacle for nurses that need to stay home and recover before coming back to work. It’s not good for us or our patients,” said Roni Kelsey, RN, a nurse at St. Joseph.
Drastic cuts to benefits will potentially impact the hospital’s ability to recruit and retain great nurses. Management has proposed increases to both premiums and deductibles for their health care plan, effectively lowering take home pay for nurses over the life the of the contract. These changes will have a profound effect on many nurses and their ability to provide health care to themselves and their families.
“This administration has stated clearly that one goal of the health care cuts is to reduce the use of health care services. We trust nurses to make decisions for patients every day. Management needs to trust nurses to make decisions about their own health care too, not discourage them from seeking care. We should demand that a not-for-profit hospital puts its employees and patients first. That means giving nurses a health care plan that makes it affordable and convenient to get the care you need. Instead, management is trying to cut costs at the expense of nurses. That hurts the nurses, it hurts their patients, and it hurts this community,” said Christine Himmelsbach, MN, RN, WSNA Assistant Executive Director of Labor Relations.