Nurses at Austin's Ascension Seton vote to authorize strike
Nurses at Ascension Seton Medical Center voted overwhelmingly Thursday to authorize a strike. The nurses’ union will now notify the hospital it has 10 days to reach an agreement before nurses engage in a one-day walkout.
Ninety-eight percent of voters were in favor of authorizing the strike.
The vote comes after months of negotiations between National Nurses United and Ascension Seton management. The nurses union is seeking protections aimed at improving hiring and retention.
Union representatives say negotiations on key proposals have reached a stalemate, but that a strike could be averted if talks with Ascension shift in the days to come. If the strike is not averted, the union said, it would be the first nurses strike in an acute care setting in Texas history.
Nearly 75% of Ascension Seton Medical Center’s roughly 900-person nursing staff voted to form the union in September.
Kristina Fuentes, a nurse in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, said her decision to vote for a strike was motivated by her patients’ well-being.
“Our patients deserve better, and they need adequate staffing so that we can provide patients better, safe care,” Fuentes said.
Nurse-to-patient staffing ratios are a key issue in the contract negotiations. Nurses at the hospital say they are often assigned too many patients at one time, lowering the standard of care for patients.
"It’s like I’m making a decision between letting someone lay in their stool for a while while I try to settle somebody who might get out of bed and fall. These are the decisions we are currently having to make."Taylor Critendon, registered nurse
Taylor Critendon, a registered nurse at Ascension Seton Medical Center and one of the union’s lead bargainers, said what qualifies as adequate staffing can vary from unit to unit. For instance, she said, in the critical care unit, where patients require the most frequent hands-on attention, a nurse ideally would be assigned no more than two patients. In the medical-surgical unit, nurses ideally would be assigned no more than four, compared to the five or six she says they are frequently assigned now.
“It’s like I’m making a decision between letting someone lay in their stool for a while while I try to settle somebody who might get out of bed and fall,” she said. “These are the decisions we are currently having to make.”
Ascension Seton Medical Center said the shortage of nurses is an issue facing health care systems across the nation.
“We continue to negotiate in good faith to reach a mutually beneficial agreement with the nurses of Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin,” it said in a statement. “Our goal is to support all of our associates in a just and equitable manner as we continue to provide safe, compassionate care to those we are privileged to serve.”
National Nurses United, for its part, takes issue with claims of a national nursing shortage, pointing to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Council of State Boards of Nursing that show more than 1 million registered nurses with active licenses currently choose not to work at the bedside.
“They have made a judgment call that either the compensation or the working conditions are not worth them expending all of their mental health and continuing to come home feeling defeated,” Critendon said.
If the strike moves forward, the 10-day notice will give the hospital time to cancel elective surgeries and relocate patients as needed, Critendon says. Ascension may also choose to hire travel nurses, who typically earn higher wages than hospitals' nursing staff.
"That, unfortunately, is the incentive," she said. "That seems to be the thing that budges them — their loss of their profits more than the loss of adequate health care."