Swedish Medical Center, preparing for a Tuesday strike of 7,800 registered nurses, nursing assistants and technical and service caregivers, has rescheduled all elective surgeries, patient classes and some other procedures for much of next week.
But instead of keeping all urgent and emergent cases the same, the hospital will close two of its seven emergency departments – Ballard and Redmond – as early as Monday evening. Swedish plans to reopen them by Friday morning, according to a news release sent Saturday.
Swedish on Saturday already closed the labor and delivery unit at its Ballard campus but expects to reopen it at full capacity Friday, the statement said.
The postponements illustrate the massive planning underway as Swedish prepares for the possible job action.
The workers, represented by Service Employees International Union Healthcare 1199NW, plan to walk off their jobs at 7 a.m. Tuesday and return at 7:30 a.m. Friday.
The hospital and union have not been at the negotiating table since Jan. 14.
A strike would affect Swedish campuses in Seattle at Cherry Hill, First Hill and Ballard as well as in Edmonds, Issaquah, Mill Creek and Redmond.
The hospital plans to bring in thousands of replacement caregivers from across the country, said Kevin Brooks, COO of Swedish First Hill. Hospital spokespeople declined to give an exact number.
“It’s an industry-standard practice,” Brooks said. “There are national agencies that specialize in this work and orchestrate this all the time.”
The replacement caregivers will work Tuesday to Saturday at the seven impacted campuses. Other facilities, including those in Bellevue, Everett, Renton and Shoreline, will not be affected.
The hospital is continuing to notify its patients of the changes in schedule, Brooks said.
All activity between Tuesday and Sunday morning will be rescheduled, except most emergent and urgent cases. Normal operations will resume after that.
During the temporary closure of the Ballard and Redmond emergency departments, the hospital directed individuals with life-threatening and urgent medical needs to go to one of Swedish’s other campuses.
“We have taken every measure to ensure our care is as high-quality as it has ever been,” he said. “We trust our caregivers and these replacement workers.”
SEIU members initially planned to walk out Jan. 14, along with health care workers from two other unions — the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA) and UFCW 21 — but postponed it while the hospital and bargaining teams continued to negotiate. The three unions represent a combined total of 13,000 workers in Washington.
Swedish is affiliated with Providence Health & Services. Members of WSNA and UFCW21, which are part of the Providence workforce, have reached tentative agreements with management.
According to a recent statement from Swedish CEO Guy Hudson, the most recent package Swedish offered its workers includes an 11.25% wage increase over the next four years; a zero-premium preferred provider organization medical plan for full-time caregivers — and their families — who earn under $60,000 annually; no premium or deductible increases for the Swedish PPO medical plan over the life of the contract; and the hiring of a new chief diversity officer to lead equity and inclusion efforts.
Raises are great, said SEIU spokeswoman Amy Clark, but staffing, retention and recruitment remain a big concern for workers.
While Swedish management said there’s a plan to recruit hundreds of new registered nurses to fill 900 open health care worker roles, SEIU members say they have yet to see real commitments.
“The more people leave, the harder the work gets because the fewer people there are to do the work,” said Betsy Scott, SEIU’s vice president and an oncology nurse at Swedish.
Hospital management has acknowledged that while there’s a national nursing shortage, they want to work with their nurses to “identify solutions to fill (their) open positions,” according to a recent statement from Hudson.
“We are disappointed that the union has decided to call a strike despite Swedish putting forward a wages and benefits proposal that is one of the strongest packages offered by a health care employer in our region, and one that reflects our deep commitment to our people,” Hudson said in another statement.
The bargaining process began in April, Clark said. In August, union members held an informational picket at all Swedish campuses. In November, SEIU members voted to authorize the elected bargaining team to call a strike.
Last week, Clark said it became clear hospital management wasn’t going to budge, so union members announced plans for a Jan. 28 strike.
In deciding the length of the strike, union members wanted to find a balance between what staffers were comfortable with and what they felt would send a strong statement, Clark said. Striking is difficult for some families, she said, which members wanted to be conscious of.
Although nurses and union members are confident about moving forward with the strike, some are nervous about its outcome, said Scott, who has been a Swedish nurse for 38 years.
“I worry that nothing will change and that we’ll have to do another strike,” she said. “We’re willing to. We’re committed. We’re fighting for quality of health care in Seattle.”