Two ERs closed as thousands of nurses, staff at Swedish hospitals strike for 3 days

Two emergency rooms are closed while as many as 8,000 nurses and hospital staff who work for Swedish Medical Center walked off the job for three days Tuesday morning.

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The emergency rooms at Swedish’s Ballard and Redmond locations are closed for three days because of the work stoppage. Ballard’s labor and delivery unit is also closed.

In Ballard, crews covered up signs pointing to the ER and turned off all the lights.

It’s unknown how many nurses and hospital workers will actually cross the picket line to work, so Swedish management said it had to make the decision to close the ERs early for patient safety reasons.

Swedish says there will be medical supervisors and ambulances to guide people who are unaware of the closures to the right place.

“At the end of the day, we don’t want anybody to have a true emergency and not get access to care,” said Anna Meehan with Northwest Ambulance, which has a contract with Swedish.

The strike action will begin at 7 a.m. Tuesday. The two closed ERs will open at 8 a.m. Friday, and the labor and delivery unit will reopen at 9 a.m. after the strike concludes Friday morning.

Swedish’s five other emergency departments -- First Hill, Cherry Hill, Issaquah, Edmonds and Mill Creek -- will remain open during the strike.

To keep hospital operations going, Swedish flew in thousands of nurses from across the country to the Seattle area. The nurses have been in town for a few days and have undergone extensive training, according to Swedish.

It’s unknown how many nurses and hospital workers will actually cross the picket line to work, so Swedish management said it had to make the decision to close the ERs early for patient safety reasons.

On Jan. 17, union SEIU 1199NW notified the hospital it planned to strike in 10 days.

Nurses at Swedish said in a press conference that based on working conditions, they believed they had no other choice than to strike.

“What we're failing at is providing the care that I would want to provide if I had my family member at the bedside,” said Carol Lightle, a nurse at Swedish in Issaquah.

“Swedish has refused to give what we consider to be appropriate and safe staffing,” said Richard Keefe, a nurse at Swedish Ballard in the addiction recovery unit.

That's one of the biggest sticking points in the contract negotiations that have fallen apart.

Nurses said they don’t have time to do things like brush patients' teeth, turn them over in bed, feed patients on time, or attend to them quickly.

“It’s our moral duty as well to make sure we're advocating for those patients when our upper management is failing to do so,” Lightle said.

Other hospital staff said they can't properly clean rooms.

“We are the front line of infection control,” said Edith Donovan, who is an EVS technician at Swedish First Hill. “I know that these beds are not getting cleaned properly,” she said.

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Swedish Medical Center said it is dealing with a staffing shortage.

“This is a national shortage and Puget Sound is hit especially hard. Right now we have an 11 percent vacancy rate in all our positions, which is several hundred nurses,” said Dr. Guy Hudson, the CEO of Swedish.

Documents the hospital shared says the union asked Swedish to add 2,000 full-time employees. The hospital offered to increase the number by 200.

Another sticking point was how much wages would be increased over the next four years. The hospital offered an “across-the-board11-board 11.25% wage increase over the four-year contract, including an immediate 3% increase that is retroactive to July 1, 2019” while the union asked for “more than 23% over the four-year contract period and that Swedish management transfer authority over staffing decisions to the union,” according to a release from the hospital.

The hospital said it’s heard the nurses’ concerns and offered the best contract they could.

“I stand behind that offer 100%. Unfortunately -- the union chose to issue that strike notice,” Hudson said.

Not all nurses agree with the union and the strike.

One RN at Swedish First Hill, worried about retaliation, asked KIRO 7 to only use his voice and his first name.

“It’s going to hurt the hospital, it’s going to hurt the community, and in the end it’s going to hurt us,” Charles said.

But other nurses say they feel they have no choice but go through with the strike.

“We don’t’ feel safe in our environment, we don’t feel like we’re providing the best care to our patients, and we need our community to support us,” said Tricia Jenkins, a nurse at the Cherry Hill Swedish emergency department.

See our previous coverage below:

1/27/2020 - Leaders at Swedish provide update about temporary closures ahead of strike

1/17/2020 - Swedish-Providence healthcare workers reverse course, announce intent to strike

1/3/2020 - Caregivers with Swedish facilities postpone planned strike

1/2/2020 - Thousands of caregivers with Swedish, Providence-owned facilities to announce plan to strike