The Austin Chronicle

Ascension Nurses Strike Again

The nurses express optimism going into bargaining

By Lina Fisher, December 15, 2023, News

Unionized Ascension Seton nurses have been embroiled in a tense bargaining process with the Catholic nonprofit hospital giant for more than a year. After they became the largest nurses union in Texas back in September 2022, they came to the bargaining table with two clear demands: safe staffing levels and enough pay to retain nurses. Ascension has not budged on that demand for more than a year, as other problems have come to light, including a lack of supplies and equipment throughout the hospital. That was the impetus for the nurses' second strike of the year, which they returned from on Sunday, after an extra three days locked out by Ascension due to contractual obligations to their strike staffing agency.

Taylor Critendon, who works in the intensive care unit, says they returned to the very conditions they were striking about: "We had no IV pumps available, we had nurses running around trying to find pumps on other units, and the ones that we do have oftentimes are not working properly." IV pumps are essential to getting medications to patients on time, says Critendon – and that's not the only important supply that's regularly missing. Throughout the hospital, gowns and linens are scarce, leading to situations that compromise the quality of patient care. Critendon describes not being able to find a gown for a patient and having to leave her covered with just a sheet: "Eventually, we were able to find a paper gown for her, at least to give her a little bit of dignity. But again, these are things that we use multiple times a day, every single day. They are things that Ascension knows that we need."

These issues are not only inconvenient for nurses and make their jobs harder, but they can also be potentially dangerous for patients. Baby blankets and thermometers in the neonatal intensive care unit are often running low, though they are essential tools nurses use to regulate a newborn's fragile and fluctuating temperature. Critendon says the hospital phones used to communicate with doctors are often broken, leading to confusion or delays in care: "If a patient's heart stops, a patient stops breathing, and I'm trying to call to let the doctor know, 'Hey, you need to get here now,' and we can't get to that doctor immediately – those seconds, those minutes might cost the patient's life."

In order to highlight the vast amount of resources they say Ascension refuses to invest in solving these issues, nurses held a bake sale to raise money for equipment over the weekend. They ended up buying a few baby blankets with the measly money they raised. But Critendon says the bake sale was intended to interact with the community about the reasons for conditions in the hospital: "We thought maybe we'd be able to have some very important conversations with visitors to the hospital, to let them know that nurses are doing everything that they can to make sure that patients have gowns and blankets and IV pumps, and we will not stop fighting until we are able to get those sorts of things in a contract."

Despite not yet having a contract ratified, several nurses told the Chronicle they are optimistic about their next bargaining meeting with Ascension, which takes place today, Dec. 14. Many of their 40 demands have already been met, but the most important one – safe staffing – is the main issue holding up the contract. "We are continuing to try to make it very clear to Ascension that nurses are not going to compromise on the staffing issue," says Critendon. "This is an issue that Ascension is able to solve, not just on a temporary basis, but permanently. We're hopeful that we might reach that point, potentially, with bargaining [today], but we will have to see if Ascension is ready to finalize this thing."

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