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Swedish healthcare workers vote to strike for better pay and working conditions

caption: Swedish First Hill Campus in Seattle.
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Swedish First Hill Campus in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

No date of a strike has been announced. The vote is a tactic to pressure Swedish in upcoming bargaining sessions.

Workers say the Swedish hospital system is chronically understaffed.

Laura Wood, a social worker at the Cherry Hill emergency department, put it like this:

“More and more, I walk into a really hectic situation of three, four, or five behavioral health patients in crisis lining up in the hallway—people who are suicidal next to people who are psychotic, being really aggressive in restraints,” she said.

“There's someone down the hall whose loved one just died and there's someone else screaming foul language.”

Swedish First Hill nursing assistant David Antwi voted in favor of a strike. At 8 a.m. on Thursday morning, he was at the end of his workday and his eyes were bloodshot.

Antwi works the overnight shift taking vital signs and helping patients go to the bathroom, eat, and walk.

There should be one nursing assistant per 12 patients on his unit, but last night, like many nights, he was the only nursing assistant there for all 27 patients. Five nurses were also on the floor that night, he said.

Less than halfway through his shift, Antwi said he feels burned out, and his response time slows. Heavy workload and burn out have created “unbelievable” turnover on his unit, he said.

Between 2016 and 2018, an average of 1,000 healthcare workers left Swedish, according to numbers from SEIU.

Meanwhile, 2,000 more babies were born at Swedish in 2018 compared to three years earlier, but just three more registered nurses were employed in the labor and delivery department, according to the union.

Margo Bykonen, Swedish’s chief nursing officer, “strongly disagreed” with employees’ claims that understaffing is putting patient care at risk.

She cited evaluations by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, as well as recent high safety ratings by The Leapfrog Group, which reviews and publishes data derived from hospitals’ voluntary submissions to a survey.

The ratings gave Swedish’s First Hill and Cherry Hill medical centers a 100 out of 100 score for “Enough qualified nurses.”

She also noted a nationwide nursing shortage as major cause for staffing shortages at Swedish.

“We're not any different than any other hospital in the area,” Bykonen said. “People are struggling to try and get experienced people to come and work, not even just in Seattle, but other places in the country as well.”

To address the problem, Bykonen said Swedish has programs to support upward mobility within the organization and train health care workers in new skills.

In a statement, Swedish said the hospital wants to work together with employees to address working conditions.

"A strike would not only represent a step backwards in our negotiations but could prove disruptive to patients who count on us for their care," the statement said.

Swedish and the union that represents many of its workers have been in contract negotiations since April. The parties remain far apart on many issues—not just understaffing, but pay.

Swedish is working on a contingency plan if there is a strike, Bykonen said. Bykonen is not in the union.

“I would hope that what we hear from our staff instead is that they are willing to sit down and let's work this through without having that action needed to be taken,” she said.

Swedish and SEIU also disagree on wage increases.

Swedish says the 2.5% that it is offering is market rate and comparable to what SEIU has agreed to at other hospitals, including Harborview Medical Center.

The union is pushing for increases of 7% the first year of the contract, saying that the region’s cost of living is far too high for what employees make.

According to a survey of its members, the average commute time of an SEIU-represented employee is 84 minutes because many live far away from the hospitals where they work.

Bykonen, the chief nurse, said she wants to have a conversation with the workers. “I'm always concerned about how we can make this the best place for people to work,” she said.

Union representatives say the hospital is ignoring employees’ proposals to address problems.

Laura Wood, the social worker, who voted in favor of a strike, but hopes the vote will send a message to Swedish so the employees can avoid walking off the job.

“We do not want to strike,” Wood said, because it would impact patients.

“But I think if we can impact patient care in a small way for a few days to make things better, to have improvements that will be ongoing, and we'll recruit and retain the best workers that we can have, it will be worth it.”

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