Nurses protest understaffing, low pay at Saint Louis University Hospital

UNION NURSES rallied at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital last week to protest low pay and chronic understaffing. – Jenn Dean/National Nurses United photo

Nurses rallied outside of SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital the morning of June 3, holding long banners covered in red handprints that read “#600 Hands Short.”

The rally to bring attention to “chronic understaffing” and low pay is the latest measure by National Nurses Organizing Committee, the hospital nurses’ union, to bring their concerns to the attention of the hospital administration and the public.

SLUH nurses in April passed a vote of “no confidence” against Rita Fowler, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer, and Chris Greenley, human resources director.

Nurses also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against the current administration for prohibiting nurses from talking about safety and pay issues on their own time in break rooms. SSM has spent thousands on lawyer and arbitration fees rather than resolving wage theft grievances that have been going on since 2020. The nurses’ current union contract will expire in June 2023.

Chief among the nurses’ complaints are concerns about severe understaffing and broken promises about pay surrounding hiring, retention, shift incentives and overtime. The union says the hospital administration, particularly Fowler, disregarded the nurses’ low morale and retention rates.

Rather than addressing those concerns, the administration issued a statement in support of Fowler, said Jenn Dean, organizer for National Nurses United.

Dean says that the hospital has “had a precipitous drop” in its ability to fill vacancies since September and now has more than 300 nursing vacancies.

RN Bill Kraus, a cardiac nurse at SLUH for two-and-a-half years, told Jessica Rogen of the Riverfront Times that when he was first hired, nurses have no more than three patients assigned to them, with a tech to help.

“Now I have five patients,” he says. “We’re lucky to have a tech. The patients aren’t getting healthier. They’re getting more acute.”

Cressie Lindsey, who works cardiovascular ICU and transplant ICU, agreed, saying most ICU nurses shouldn’t have more than two patients and those caring for patients with recent transplants shouldn’t have more than one patient.

“What’s happening is we’re having to take extra patients, and it’s just not safe,” she told Rogen “Your patient down the hall is desatting. Your patient down the hall, their heart rate is up or their heart rate is down, and we can’t get to them. We want to make sure we’re right there with those two patients …. we don’t want our loved ones flatlining because we can’t get to them because we have too many patients.”

Kraus says the hospital administrators have business rather than medical backgrounds, and should come down to the floor and see what nurses are experiencing.

RN Tina Magruder says pay is a major reason for the staffing shortage and that SLUH pays on the lower end for area hospitals.

“A lot of people have left to go work for an agency,” she said.


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