Stuck in the Middle of Feud
On July 23, hundreds of patients at Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro Children’s Hospital began to receive care from short-term contract nurses who had only been trained at these facilities for a day. I am sure their nursing qualifications are fine, as vetted by the RI Department of Health and employed by a company that specializes in such scenarios.
And even still, this event, far from ideal for any party, put many patients’ lives at risk, along with the lives of people throughout the community who came to need the high quality, nearby care typically provided at RIH/HCH, but for which they were diverted during the strike. The community subsidizes the hospital by way of tax exemption. We entrust our health and injuries to the staff working there. And we, the remaining 99.9% of Rhode Islanders who aren’t hospital executives or UNAP leaders, don’t know why we’ve been put at risk.
I support unions. I support their right to form and collectively bargain for workers’ compensation and benefits, and to use their strength in numbers to create positive and productive work environments for the companies at which their members work. And, when necessary, I support the rights of a union to call a strike. That support and understanding of the need to strike, as determined by the union’s leadership and members, does not absolve a union of blame for the results of their decision to strike. Those results are the very reason a strike is an effective tool. But, when factory workers, airline baggage handlers, or teachers strike, those jobs can pause; airlines cancel flights, factories fall behind on delivering inventory, and children remain at home.
A nurse’s job, as any nurse can tell you, does not pause. People cannot stop being sick because of a dispute between labor and management. Knowledge that the job must go on creates the powerful leverage wielded by UNAP. In my opinion, a nursing strike should only be called if it will ensure a safer and better hospital to such an extent that it outweighs the risks posed by the strike itself.
It seems in this situation, that could be the case. I have been told by a nurse who works at RIH the reason for the strike had to do with staffing levels. She stated that nurses at RIH feel they are too understaffed to properly care for patients. That may very well be accurate. It may even be a primary factor, but it may also be a minor factor in the failure for the two sides to come together. We don’t know, because we only know that they didn’t agree.
I find it troubling that RI’s largest hospital -- part of RI’s largest employer altogether -- operating as a non-profit organization with a mandate to serve the community, can have the largest division of its workforce walk off the job due to a dispute and neither side is obligated to disclose to the public why it is happening. All our lives are put at risk because two groups aren’t able to agree with one another. The public deserves greater transparency. We deserve to know the contract or disputed terms to which each side said no.
I find it even more troubling how quickly people are to place blame, with whichever side they’re pointing at, without knowing the whole story. The notion that RIH is favoring “profits over patients” as seen on picket signs seems a bit outrageous because profits must be reinvested in the hospital. This is a hospital that provides tens of millions of dollars in charity care and public service. And if you look at RIH’s financial data over several years, there aren’t profits to speak of. For the year ending 9/30/2016, RIH lost more than $32 million.
It’s not as simple as when the management of a typical corporation decides to skimp on wages and benefits, underfund equipment maintenance or fail to improve working conditions for its employees. The management of a non-profit is charged by a volunteer board to do the most good with its resources.
But Lifespan must also understand that when executive pay is in the high six figures and into seven figures that it does not have a strong financial argument to justify allowing a strike. At least, not without open disclosure of the disputed contract.
The hospital claims to want its nurses and staff remaining inside and caring for its patients. If that is true, don’t give them reason to walk off site again. And for UNAP, if it’s about patient safety and staffing levels, prioritize the hospital’s status in the ranks of best staffing and safety metrics, not rankings related to pay.
And until the two sides have agreed... If UNAP strikes again, please don’t picket with signs criticizing the professionalism and medical care that can be delivered by the temporary staff. They are caring for your patients, who -- even if the patients agree with your strike -- are vulnerable and scared. You can make your case by sharing what you are asking the hospital to provide and force management to respond publicly with why they aren’t delivering.