EVERETT, Wash. - Healthcare systems in Washington are strained to a breaking point, and the squeeze got tighter in Snohomish County.
On Tuesday, nurses of Providence Regional Medical Center began the first day of a five-day strike to address "chronic understaffing" at two hospital campuses in Everett.
A nationwide survey by AMN Healthcare Services this spring showed almost one-third of nurses are thinking about quitting. The burnout, plus the rapid pace of nurses retiring, makes contract negotiations for Providence nurses more important than ever.
"The community needs to understand that this is for their safety," said Katy Roth, a registered nurse who has worked for Providence for 19 years.
Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union marched outside both hospitals, taking a stand against unfair labor practices, and calling for a fair contract.
"We’re just getting overwritten; we’re not being heard. And unfortunately, it had to come to this," said Sean Krautheim, a registered nurse in the psychiatric unit.
Hospital leaders said the majority of the nurses decided to participate in the strike. UFCW previously stated more than 1,300 nurses would strike.
Kristy Carrington, chief executive of Providence Swedish North Puget Sound, said the hospital is fully staffed while the strike continues. She explained clinical and non-clinical volunteers are helping cover daily operations, while replacement nurses are filling in to care for patients.
"This comes at a higher cost for the hospital which is unfortunate, which is why we are really disappointed that we got to this point with a strike. But with that being said, we recognize and respect our nurses’ rights. We care about our nurses, we value our nurses," said Carrington.
Officials assured scheduled procedures and surgeries would operate as normal with the support of the replacement nurses, traveling nurses and volunteers.
Michelle Lundstrom, chief nursing officer for Providence Regional Medical Center, said hospital leaders hope their proposal, which includes incentives, retention and recruitment programs and a 21.5% wage increase, will be agreed on.
"This is the highest increase that I’ve ever seen. On average it’s between 7-9% and we’re offering 21.5% in addition to other incentives, in addition to other compensation that’s built into the package. So, it’s a really good contract," said Lundstrom.
Union members, however, said their fight for a fair contract is not all about the money. They said they have been dealing with chronic staffing shortages, claiming it’s affecting patient care.
"This is harder than the pandemic. I’ve never experienced these kind of patient loads in the 19 years of hospital nursing," said Roth.
"As nurses, it’s really hard to walk into a shift and have 10 patients. I’ve had to float to floors that I’m not trained on and be working with patients that are on comfort care, have really complicated wounds that I’m not used to changing and just be like I’m going to do my best for you, but I’m not really the nurse you need right now and there isn’t enough of us," said Krautheim.
"It’s a global issue and it’s going to get worse over time. So, what we’ve done to help mitigate some of the risk of having lower staff is innovative staffing models. We’ve implemented all kinds of different strategies and we’ve built some of these things right into the contract that we are offering," said Lundstrom.
Carrington said some of the hospital’s efforts have made an impact on staffing. She explained this time last year, the turnover rate for bedside nurses was approximately 28%. She said the turnover rate this year for bedside nurses is 19.8%.
"Yes, there are moments when we’re short-staffed. Yes, there are times when our workloads were higher which is why we really want to get to a place where we can come to an agreement on a contract on some solutions that help us with that," said Carrington.
Contract negotiations began in April 2023. After both parties could not reach an agreement, nurses and the UFCW voted on October 19 to authorize a strike. It carried with a 97% approval.
When the strike is over Sunday morning, both sides will be back at the bargaining table, though a date for contract negotiations has not been confirmed.
Hospital officials said they’re actively working on solutions, but believe their answers cannot be reached by a strike.
"It’s disruptive. It’s disruptive not just to our patients, and our community, it’s disruptive to us as an organization and our culture. And as we come back together, our goal has been from day one to ensure that we’re welcoming our nurses back. We care about our nurses, we value them, we need them," said Carrington.
"I’m feeling hopeful and united that we can get language in our contract that will prevent the hospital from giving us six patients, seven patients every day as an intentional staffing plan," said Roth. "This strike is our best chance to fix the staffing problem and give us the care that we deserve to give to our community."