Ascension Seton Nurses Prepare to Strike Again Amid Supply Shortages

Management responds with promised three-day lockout


Nurses at a rally during the June 27 strike. They will strike again December 6. (photo by John Anderson)

Facing shortages in critical supplies including IV pumps, nurses at Ascension Seton are preparing a one-day strike December 6 after their first historic strike in June. They'll be joined by nurses at two unionized hospitals in Kansas striking the same day. In Austin, Ascension announced it will again lock nurses out for an extra three days, citing contractual obligations to the strike staffing agencies they hire to fill in. Nurses will be allowed to return the morning of December 10.

Since 900 Seton nurses unionized last year, bargaining has been fraught with tension. Nurses have consistently flagged unsafe staffing levels that lead to overwork, retention issues, poor working conditions, and ultimately deteriorated patient care. Still, they have yet to ratify their first contract. There has been marked progress since the last strike on their 40 demands, but another pressing issue – severe shortages of equipment integral to patient safety – was dire enough to cause nurses to take action again to speed up the bargaining process. Hospital gowns, blankets, thermometers, and IV pumps have been in short supply, forcing nurses to make triage decisions, says Lindsay Spinney, who has worked in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for six years.

"We use IV pumps to give medications that keep people's hearts beating, keep people's blood pressure up at a safe level, especially in the critical care areas, like my unit and the adult ICU. And if there's any delay" – like a pump malfunction or a dead battery – "it can have really serious consequences for the patient. We're seeing a complete lack of IV pumps accessible in the emergency department, specifically in the adult ICU. So nurses are having to make a decision: Does this person need this IV pump more than this person?"

“We’re seeing a complete lack of IV pumps accessible in the emergency department, specifically in the adult ICU. So nurses are having to make a decision: Does this person need this IV pump more than this person?”   – NICU Nurse Lindsay Spinney

In the NICU, nurses run out of baby blankets and pillow cases regularly, as well as thermometers. "A thermometer is one of our most important tools," says Spinney, as fragile newborns need to be kept warm and monitored for fever. There's also a shortage of isolettes, which are environment-controlled incubators for the tiniest babies nurses call "micro preemies," per Spinney. "Whenever you have an infant that is severely premature – and we get them transferred in from all across the state – they have to be in this controlled environment to keep them safe and help them grow."

Those isolettes, which re-create the environment of a womb, have to be changed every seven days to mitigate for the high risk of infection, but Spinney says they don't have enough currently to do the proper change-outs. Meanwhile, the labor and delivery unit is down to only two wireless monitors that measure the baby's movements and heart rate in utero. "We should have dozens at least," says Spinney. These issues dovetail with understaffing: "Patient care techs or certified nurse assistants, they help stock everything," and "all positions are running lean and short-staffed."

In a statement Tuesday outlining its strike contingency plan, Ascension said they are "committed to not canceling any scheduled bargaining dates" and "believe that differences are best resolved respectfully at the bargaining table." However, in August, when nurses confronted managers who refused to meet them in person, Ascension canceled the day's meeting.

Spinney says the poststrike lockout is disappointing – last strike, nurses returned after the lockout to diminished patient care by inadequately trained temp nurses unfamiliar with hospital protocols. "Ascension could make a decision at any point in time to settle the contract and make changes to avoid this."

* Editor's note Monday, Dec. 4 11:30am: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that the labor and delivery unit is down to only two monitors; specifically, the unit only has two wireless monitors. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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