Published Friday, August 18, 2023 in The Everett Herald
By Sydney Jackson
The nursing crisis at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett shows no signs of improvement and could even be getting worse, nurses said Wednesday.
More than 25 nurses and supporters met at the Everett Labor Temple to discuss the staffing shortage and their push for better working conditions. Nurses are seeking a new labor contract with a new patient-to-nurse ratio — four patients per nurse is a widely accepted standard — and competitive wages.
“It’s just as bad as this time last year, maybe even worse,” said Kelli Johnson, an ER nurse and one of four nurses who spoke on a panel Wednesday.
Nurses said the emergency department lobby is often full with 40 to 50 patients — some waiting several hours to be seen, some receiving care in the lobby. Nurses are constantly moving, helping up to eight patients at a time. Most of the beds are occupied by non-emergency patients, nurses said, since there are not enough nurses in other units. Some patients get left on a gurney for over a day.
Johnson said someone who has a heart attack could wait up to 30 minutes for an electrocardiogram, or EKG. The cardiac cath lab, where they may get a life-saving procedure, is the busiest in the state, she said.
Kristy Carrington, CEO of Providence Swedish North Puget Sound, agreed the hospital is short-staffed.
“The workloads that nurses have are significant,” she said in an interview Thursday.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Everett hospital has gone from 2,000 nurses on staff to about 1,400, nurses said Wednesday. Despite an already strained staff, they said, corporate ended contracts with travel nurses and lowered hourly pay.
“We lost about 50 travel nurses in two weeks,” said Kristen Crowder, a labor and delivery nurse who was also on the panel Wednesday.
Providence officials have said the staffing crisis is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, staff burnout and lack of access to the national “talent pipeline.”
Carrington, who still maintains her nursing certification, assumed her role overseeing the Everett hospital after former CEO Darren Redick resigned last August. She said the crisis is “not a quick fix.” Hospital leadership is working to implement a team model to more evenly disperse the workload, but said she doesn’t agree the current workload is endangering patients.
“There are really no national set standards for nurse-patient ratios,” she said.
Everett City Council member Mary Fosse, who attended the town hall, said “unsafe staffing levels” led to complications as she delivered a baby at Providence. Her newborn ended up in the neonatal intensive care unit and Fosse had lasting medical complications.
“It was a traumatic event,” she said in an interview Thursday. “I know that’s not the level of care they want to give. … I stand with the nurses.”
Johnson said she began speaking out last year after a family came in for emergency care and left because the lobby was full. They woke the next day with a child in critical condition.
“We’re seeing some scary situations that patients are being put in,” she said. “Someone shouldn’t have to die for Providence to do something.”
Tensions escalated last November when a patient died after becoming unresponsive in the emergency department lobby. City and county leaders signed an open letter calling on Providence to increase staffing and improve working conditions.
Hospital leadership responded with a six-page letter including a plan to host monthly open forums, increase the number of nursing assistants on care teams and provide cash incentives for taking extra shifts.
“We have seen things get better,” Carrington said.
The hospital hired 18 nurses and lost 34 nurses in July 2022, she said. This July, they hired 50 nurses and lost 10.
In April of this year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law to set minimum hospital staffing levels across the state that goes into full effect in 2027. It was a win for nurses who had testified in Olympia that staffing shortages had led to patient deaths. A previous bill that would have limited the number of patients per nurse failed in the state Senate last year.
Nurses at the meeting said Providence fails to hire and retain nurses in part because of the pay. Last year, the union negotiated a pay increase of at least 5% for staff.
“My hairdresser makes more money than I do and I’ve been a nurse for 19 years,” Crowder said. “We’ve lost nurses to Swedish, which offers normal nurse-patient ratios and a $10 raise.”
Providence has proposed a 19.4% pay increase over the next three years to bring Everett nurse salaries on par with Swedish Edmonds, Carrington said. She said Providence would review salaries annually to ensure they were competitive.
Juan Stout, an ER nurse who has worked at the hospital for 15 years, said Providence is paying “thousands of dollars” to train workers who end up leaving for better pay and working conditions elsewhere.
“The older experienced nurses said, ‘Hell with it, I’m gone,’” he said. “In 2021, nursing students at EvCC did video lessons and worked on dummies. When those nurses got to the floor and saw what it was really like, they left.”
The next meeting for contract negotiations with Providence is set for Aug. 28. The nurses said a strike may be in the future — it would be the first strike at the hospital since 1999.
“It may be the only way to reach their pocketbooks,” Crowder said.