Undeterred by Lockout Threat, Nurses Demand Safe Staffing in Historic Strike at Ascension Hospitals

Nurses walk on a picket line as they protest corporate greed and unsafe staffing levels at Ascension hospitals in Kansas and Texas on June 27, 2023.

(Photo: @MorePerfect/Twitter)

Undeterred by Lockout Threat, Nurses Demand Safe Staffing in Historic Strike at Ascension Hospitals

"Management's retaliatory threats are despicable, but union nurses won't give up on our fight for our patients."

The largest nurses union in the United States said Tuesday that the nonprofit hospital chain Ascension had "failed to intimidate" thousands of its members as 2,000 registered nurses in Texas and Kansas went forward with a historic one-day strike to demand safe staffing levels in their contracts—a matter, they said, of putting patients over profits.

Registered nurses represented by National Nurses United (NNU) staged the strike despite a threat from Ascencion, the second-largest Catholic nonprofit healthcare network in the U.S., to impose a three-day lockout on anyone who took part in the work stoppage.

The strike is being held at Ascension via Christi St. Joseph Hospital and Ascension via Christi St. Francis Hospital, both in Wichita, Kansas, and Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin.

The strike is reportedly the largest ever held by the union in Texas and the first in Kansas.

"Management's retaliatory threats are despicable, but union nurses won't give up on our fight for our patients," said Kris Fuentes, a nurse at Ascension Seton Medical Center. "Ascension's dangerous staffing practices disrupt our ability to provide quality care and put our patients at risk every day. This is a clear sign Ascension would rather use its vast resources to delay improvement than to invest in the care our patients and our communities deserve with appropriate staffing."

NNU said that despite Ascension's vast financial resources, it has for years maintained what nurses say are dangerously low staffing levels, with roughly six patients assigned to each nurse in a shift, according to The Austin Chronicle.

In California, hospitals are legally required to assign no more than five general patients or two critical care patients to a single nurse.

"Nurses at Seton say chemotherapy patients don't have a dedicated chemotherapy nurse, so nurses must leave their patients to administer treatment," reported the Chronicle last week. "There's been an increase in falls as patients try to get to the bathroom by themselves when nurses can't come fast enough."

Lindsay Spinney, who works in Seton's neonatal intensive care unit, told the outlet that she is frequently tasked with caring for three or four medically fragile babies at a time.

"Everybody that's taken care of a baby knows how challenging one can be," Spinney said. "These tiny people can't tolerate mistakes. It's a safety issue. The community should be concerned that the hospital is willing to do that, rather than help us get to a good solution that's safe for everyone."

While forcing patients and nurses to cope with understaffing, Ascension has amassed $19.5 billion in cash reserves. The chain also has "an investment arm that manages $41 billion and a private equity operation worth $1 billion," said NNU.

STAT News reported in 2021 that Ascension's foray into private equity was "unprecedented and strikingly unusual" for a healthcare company that claims to be a nonprofit, while a New York Times investigation found that the chain has allowed high provider-to-patient ratios "in an effort to improve profitability."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Tuesday expressed strong support for the nurses and said Ascension's treatment of its healthcare professionals is indicative of "the greed in our corporate healthcare system."

On the picket line, nurses carried signs reading, "Called heroes, treated like zeroes," and "Staff shortages cost lives."

"Nurses are patient advocates at the bedside and, when we need to be, on the strike line," said Carol Samsel, an intensive care unit nurse at St. Joseph Hospital. "Union nurses are ready to stand united against these conditions, which are driving away both veteran nurses, whom we need to ensure the highest standards of care, and new graduates, who are necessary for the sustainability of our profession."

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