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Hundreds of nurses at Austin’s Ascension Seton Medical Center walked out of the hospital Tuesday morning, kicking off the largest nurses strike in Texas history.
The strike began at 6:45 a.m., with nurses marching along West 38th Street in front of the hospital, holding signs with messages like “Safe staffing saves lives!” and “Essential? Yeah right!”
Seventy-two percent of the 900-person nursing staff voted to form a union last fall. National Nurses United began its first contract negotiations with Ascension in November. Now, the union says it has reached an impasse with hospital management over priorities related to hiring and retention.
A top concern for the union is lower guaranteed nurse-to-patient staffing ratios. Nurses at the hospital say they are assigned too many patients at a time, causing nurses to burn out and patients to receive a lower standard of care.
“When there’s not adequate staffing, then we can’t attend to our patient alarms as quickly as we hope,” said Natasha Gosek, a nurse in Ascension Seton’s neonatal intensive care unit. “There’s delay in medications; there’s delay in care.”
While Ascension says its staffing challenges are linked to a nationwide shortage of registered nurses, NNU members say qualified nurses are being driven from the profession because of inadequate hospital conditions and policies. One sign on the picket line Tuesday summed up the union’s stance: “It’s not a shortage. It’s an exodus.”
At 9:30 a.m., nurses were joined for a rally by union representatives and community leaders, including U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, who praised the nurses for fighting for patient safety.
“You’re on strike making sure that our kids are born safely, that we’re taken care of when we are sick, that our neighbors in their most desperate moments get the care that they need,” he said.
The strike is set to last 24 hours. However, Ascension said it will not allow the striking nurses back until July 1. The staffing agency the hospital contracted with to provide temporary staff during the strike required a minimum four-day contract, according to the hospital.
NNU called this additional three-day lockout “a deliberate ploy to intimidate nurses from speaking out.” But Matthew Clark, an intensive care unit nurse at the hospital and a member of the union’s negotiating team, said the move has caused more nurses to join the strike effort.
“It’s something that I think has backfired on them and has really galvanized the nurses into becoming that much more bold,” he said.
When the union announced its intent to strike 10 days before the walkout, Ascension said it was disappointed, “given the hardship this will present for our associates and their families, and the concern this action may cause our patients and their loved ones.” The hospital system also said it continued to be committed to bargaining with the union in good faith.
Nurses, however, point to the three-day lockout as a sign that Ascension is not prioritizing the safety of patients. Kristine Kittelson, a registered nurse who works with mothers and babies, said by extending the number of days temporary staff are filling in, the hospital will be relying on nurses who are less familiar with the facility than full-time staff.
“They don’t know our orders. They don’t know our doctors, and they don’t know our hospital, so it’s not the safest option for our patients,” Kittelson said. “That’s why we chose the one-day [strike].”
Nurses plan to return to the hospital first thing Wednesday morning with the intent to work — whether or not they are allowed through the doors.
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