A patient at MultiCare Auburn Medical Center pushes a button to summon help.
Minutes may pass, however, before a body shows up to tend to that need, not because staff are loafers, not at all, they say, but because there are not enough skilled people to go around.
And there aren’t enough personnel because MAMC’s wages lag far behind what other hospitals in South King County offer, said Raymond Fugate, an emergency services technician at MAMC, who for 15 years has provided direct patient care like drawing blood and performing CPRs and EKGS.
“It’s especially bad late at night, and in the early morning,” Fugate said of the meager staffing.
The low-wage-engendered-staff shortage and related high turnover and are only some of the issues that got 30-plus members of SEIU Local 1199 up on their feet Thursday afternoon, Feb. 21, to take their current contract dispute with the hospital into the sunlight, not in the form of a strike but as “an informational picket for quality care.”
A lesser known issue is the length of time the hospital keeps disciplinary records in employees’ files.
“We are really trying to let the community know that, amongst other things, this is not only about money, it is really about safe-staffing ratios and employee retention.” said LPN Caroline Bellinger, her comment framed by the rhythmic cadences of protest at her back and the tramp, tramp, tramp of marching feet.
“We’re here, we’re strong, we’ll fight for health care all day long,” the marchers chanted among many phrases, carrying signs under the emergency room sign.
SEIU 1199 represents licensed practical nurses, certified nursing assistants, ER techs, sterile processing techs, food and nutrition services workers, housekeepers and other staff, all of whom have been working under a contract that first expired last July 31, was again extended in September and is about to expire again.
“What we hope do with the wage piece of our issues is to get us up to the standards of other hospitals in South King County,” Bellinger said. “We are out here today to really make some movement in bargaining. We are in bargaining sessions right now. Unfortunately, as far as the bargaining that’s gone on, we are not getting very far. We are still pretty far apart.”
Hard fact, Fugate said, is that the hospital doesn’t pay starting wages that attract enough skilled people to do the work. Yes, Fugate said, people do hire on, but then they don’t stay long, finding greener pastures down the road.
“I train new staff members, and three months later, they leave, go to another facility where they can make more an hour doing the same job,” Fugate said.
Fugate lives in Auburn, his kids attend Auburn schools, and should he be ill, MAMC is where he’ll go, same as everybody else. He loves the job, loves patient care, has been doing it for 15 years, can’t imagine doing anything else. He wants to stay in the community he’s come to love, he said, but it’s getting tough. The rent he and his wife pay for the three-bedroom, Lea Hill apartment they share with their four kids has increased three times in the last two years to $1,800 today, and what he earns is not keeping up.
“We’re standing out here for fair wages, better staffing, and a safe environment,” Fugate said.
Larry Brown, president of the Washington State-King County Labor Council, rallied marchers from the bed of a truck.
“It’s important to me personally. I live in Auburn. It’s important to us to have fair wages, good jobs and patient safety. It’s also important to me because both of my children were born in this hospital,” Brown said.
In a statement on the SEIU website Brandy Carner, a food and nutrition services worker, noted:
“We’re losing too many people to other hospitals, and as a dedicated health care worker, I can’t just sit on the sidelines and watch patient care be eroded. That’s why we’re taking action and informing our community, to make sure MultiCare Auburn is a place where caregivers can continue to give quality care,” Carner said.
“There’s been a disturbing trend in health care, where corporations are sponsoring sports teams and pouring money into branding while neglecting caregivers and risking patient care,” Bellinger said. “That’s what is happening at MultiCare Auburn Medical Center. Management is making the outside of the buildings pretty while inside we’re struggling with startling turnover rates, calls to pick up extra shifts due to short staffing, and low wages. It’s time MultiCare Auburn Medical Center comes to the table and addresses the concerns and proposed solutions to the job crisis at Auburn. The people, our patients, deserve the best from their community hospital.”
Mark Swart, media relations manager for MultiCare Auburn Medical Center, noted that thousands of MultiCare employees are represented by unions, and the hospital strives to have a strong and collaborative relationship with those groups who share its goals of taking care of the patients the hospital serves.
“We have been working collaboratively and constructively with SEIU on a new contract that will affect about 300 employees at MultiCare Auburn Medical Center. Those jobs include food service workers, lab assistants, medical records coders, technicians and licensed practical nurses. We have made great progress toward an agreement that positions both our employees and our hospital for the future. We wanted to resolve those issues in the fall when the contract expired, but there are a few areas, including pay, that we are still discussing. We are committed to providing all employees with competitive wages and benefits, and MultiCare’s current proposals would do just that. We remain hopeful that we can reach an agreement at the next bargaining session,” Swart said.
Swart said the hospital puts the safety of its patients first, and patients who need immediate medical attention are always prioritized.
“Auburn is a very busy hospital, especially this time of year with seasonal cold and flu. The average wait time at Auburn’s emergency department is 27 minutes … Also, in regards to staffing, turnover at Auburn Medical Center in 2018 was 13.8 percent, which is about average for MultiCare hospitals. Nationally, the average hospital turnover rate in 2017 was 18.2 percent, according to Nursing Solutions Inc,” Swart concluded.