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Organized Chaos

J. Hadley Hooper

Nurses at two of Denver's biggest hospitals, Saint Joseph Hospital and Denver Health Medical Center, are following the lead of nurses at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood by trying to organize to fight what they say are unfair and unsafe working conditions. Nurses at two other metro hospitals are also trying to organize but say they don't want to go public until they've notified their employers of their plans.

Employees at all four have contacted the Service Employee International Union Local 105. Lynette Pitcock, an organizer with the union, says she's been talking to nurses throughout Denver for the last year, but she wouldn't comment on what stage nurses from Saint Joseph's, Denver Health or any other hospitals have reached in their organizing efforts.

"There's been a tremendous discussion about trying to make changes in health care. As far as I know, nurses all over the state are talking about organizing," Pitcock says. "Nurses are at various stages in different hospitals, but they're not at the point where a majority of nurses have decided to build an organization."

The SEIU has organized more than 30,000 hospital workers and more than 100,000 health-care workers (including nursing-home workers and employees at other health-care facilities) across the country in the last two years. A nurse at Denver Health who asked not to be identified says that the nurses there don't feel like they have a say in what hours they work and that they feel lucky if they get a half-hour lunch or fifteen-minute break. "A union would most definitely help," the nurse says, but adds that when managers hear about organizing efforts, they "prey on nurses' weak spot, which is their inability to get along. When the issue of unions come up, the [supervisors] say it will divide the nurses." That seems to be the case right now at Swedish, where nurses are divided over whether to organize. If the recent strife there is any indication, other hospitals could become deeply polarized as well.

The biggest complaint from nurses at Swedish is that they have too many patients to take care of. Although the hospital has guidelines for how many patients nurses should serve, they say there are too few nurses and too many patients to comply with them.

"For the past three to four years, patient care has suffered for a lot of reasons -- mostly money reasons," says Jill Marsh, a registered nurse at Swedish and a member of the hospital's organizing committee. "There have been staffing cuts, and the hospital doesn't offer competitive wages."

In the multi-trauma unit, where Marsh works, there is supposed to be a technician and nurse for every four or five patients, but because of the shortage, Marsh sometimes has to share a technician with another nurse, leaving the technician to care for ten patients instead of five. The result is less attention to patients and more room for mistakes, she says. "It makes you sick when you can't even keep your patient clean because you don't have time. And when people work unscheduled overtime, they get reprimanded, so a lot of people work off the clock just to get their work done."

To make up for the shortage, Swedish has hired more than a hundred "traveler" nurses from a national agency, who work three to six months at a time. "They're well-qualified nurses, but to address the problem in this way without addressing it in any other way -- like offering more competitive salaries -- is wrong," Marsh says.

In fact, say nurses, Swedish has cut back on raises. "You can go to Dillard's or 7-Eleven and get paid more, so why be a nurse?" says Pody Hunnicut, a technician at Swedish.

The Swedish Medical Center organizing committee also says that since hospitals no longer pay nurses more than other health-care institutions, nurses are finding that they can make more money at long-term-care facilities and nursing homes.

Dana Pepper, vice president of patient-care services at Swedish, says the hospital conducts market surveys twice a year to determine what other hospitals in the area are paying. She says the $15.50-an-hour starting salary for nurses is comparable to what other hospitals offer. "We're pretty competitive, but in one month, if one hospital is having a lot of vacancies in a department, they may have a sign-on bonus of $5,000, while we don't."

Frustrations with all of these issues prompted Marsh to call the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, which already represents 1,200 Kaiser Permanente employees in Colorado. Organizers hope all 2,000 hospital employees -- 800 nurses, plus nurse aides, technicians, housecleaning and cafeteria staff -- will join the union.

But not all employees there are happy about the effort. Jean M. Brady, a charge nurse in the neuroscience unit who has worked at the hospital for 21 years, says she resents the union push. While employees are considering organizing, she says, the hospital has to be careful about implementing any new policies lest they be accused of imposing unfair labor practices. "As a longtime employee who is not dissatisfied, this ties the hands of what I think is effective management," Brady says. "It makes people who are on the fence about unionizing say, 'Why not unionize?' But the reason the hospital can't change things is because of the union itself."

Brady doubts that a union would answer the nurses' concerns. "HMOs and PPOs are a reality," she says. "With the nursing shortage, it isn't possible to get more nurses." As for wages, she adds, "Who doesn't think they don't get paid enough? I don't believe that paying dues and belonging to a union will change things. It will only hinder what we do well."

"I don't think a union has the power to create more nurses," adds Marie Kannikal, a registered nurse at Swedish. "You can't get blood from a stone."

"I do think at times that I'm overworked, but not underpaid," says nurse Bernie Nissen. "I would retire early rather than sign that card."

Those who aren't in favor of a union say it's not a nursing shortage that's compromising the safety of their patients -- it's the union organizers. "When we leave in the afternoon, there are union organizers in the garage trying to hand us fliers. They come in the hospital on weekends and at night with their union activities, and they've taken department rosters with people's home phone numbers. It seems very subversive and sneaky to me," says nurse Leigh Sinclair.

"There are people you've worked with for fifteen years, and if they grew up in a family that was very pro-union and you didn't, you're going to disagree," she adds. "There are strong feelings both ways, and it's destroying personal and professional relationships. I've seen a lot of unpleasant bantering going on. It's taking the focus away from what our business is about, and that's taking care of our patients."

The strong push to unionize has even driven away potential new hires: Eight nurses who had accepted jobs at Swedish withdrew their employment agreements after learning about the union effort, nurses there say.

More than 100 employees have already signed cards indicating an interest in organizing, however. Union backers will need 30 percent of the total number of employees to be signed up before the National Labor Relations Board can hold a hospital-wide vote, but Marsh says they'll probably hold off until they have 60 percent. "I would be happy if the vote comes within a year," she says.

If Swedish is successful, workers there predict it will spawn even more organizing efforts in Colorado. "A union contract would give us protection and a voice," says Pody Hunnicut, adding that his pro-union colleagues have been flooded with calls from nurses and technicians throughout Denver who are hoping for the same protection.

That scenario is nurse Nissen's worst nightmare: "If I were a patient and I had a choice between a union hospital and a non-union hospital, I'd choose the non-union hospital."


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