Health-care workers like me need new commitment from Swedish

Read this article at Edmonds Beacon

On Aug. 15, health-care workers at Swedish Edmonds and across the Swedish system, all members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, collectively picketed outside of seven Swedish-Providence campuses to demand patients be prioritized over profits.

As health-care workers, we come to work each day with the Swedish mission in mind – to “improve the health and well-being of each person we serve.” Yet we are often left without the resources to provide that excellent care due to chronic understaffing and overwork.

Research has shown that nurse staffing has a direct effect on patient outcomes. Higher patient loads have been associated with higher rates of complications, falls, infection, readmission rates, and risk of patient death.

I’ve been an emergency department nurse for seven years. The minute I walk into the department, I’ve learned to look for clues to how the day will go. Are there patients on hospital beds in the hallway? Are there patients on stretchers and emergency medical services personnel lined up at the ambulance entrance?

Is there a patient yelling in the hall surrounded by caregivers hoping security is nearby? Do I see staff scurrying from room to room because they have too much to do and too little time?

I’ve dealt with this stress many times. I take pride in knowing I can overcome this stress to make a difference in my patient’s life and health.

But there have been times I felt defeated.

One night, my charge nurse pulled me aside to tell me my patient had called their family crying because they urinated and needed to be cleaned. I was shocked. The patient appeared to have been resting quietly in the hallway bed all night. I’d run past them many times while rushing from room to room.

I asked my patient why they didn’t ask for help. The patient told me they saw how busy I was, how busy we all were, and didn’t want to take me away from other patients just to use the restroom.

I felt like I had failed my patient.

Ultimately, Swedish-Providence had failed both of us with staffing levels that do not allow us to provide the best care we can.

Recruiting and retaining top talent to the difficult work of the health-care field requires competitive wages. But on top of short staffing, employees at Swedish-Providence are also faced with wages that do not keep up with the high cost of living in the Seattle area.

We know in order to recruit and retain staff to maintain safe staffing levels, Swedish must commit to providing wages that keep up with the region’s high cost of living. Currently, many Swedish workers cannot afford to live in the same community they serve.

Increasing commute times become a barrier to working at Swedish as workers are forced to find work closer to their homes and families.

Fair benefits are a concern of Swedish health-care workers as well, especially health insurance. Health-care workers put their own health and safety at risk to provide care. We experience high rates of musculoskeletal injuries, exposure to chemicals and hazardous drugs, stress, and violence.

Yet the health-care insurance we receive through Providence St. Joseph Health, the parent company of Swedish, is unaffordable for many of my coworkers. In fact, 3,732 Providence employees and dependents throughout Washington state had to rely on Apple Health, the state’s Medicaid plan, for their health care last year.

Meanwhile, the top 15 executives of Providence St. Joseph Health received $41 million in compensation. Quality care depends on healthy caregivers, and none of us should have to struggle to take care of our own health or that of our families.

Our union gives us a voice in the decisions Swedish-Providence management makes, and we are demanding our voices be heard. We are asking Swedish to commit to safe staffing ratios. We are asking for a commitment to wages and benefits that recruit and retain.

And we are asking Swedish commit to racial justice and respect for all because our workers are just as diverse as our community and everyone deserves to feel like they belong.

In solidarity, we gathered together as Swedish health-care workers and members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW outside of Swedish Medical Center in Edmonds knowing that while we may not be actively saving lives, we would still be fighting for the health of our community in a different way.

When we stand with our community in unity, we can hold Swedish accountable to provide patient-centered, safe, and quality care.

Whittney Powers is an RN at Swedish Edmonds. She lives in Seattle.