Saint Louis University Hospital nurses hold informational picket to protest staffing crisis

Nurses say chronic short staffing, failure to recruit and retain experienced RNs puts patients and staff at risk

REGISTERED NURSE Marchelle Vernell holds a sign conveying her message “If nurses are outside, something is wrong. We are in an acute crisis of care right now,” she said as nurses rallied outside SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital on July 19 to demand safe staffing levels and a fair contract. – Labor Tribune photo


St. Louis – Registered nurses at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital (SLUH) held an informational picket July 19 to demand that management address the staffing crisis at the facility and its impact on patient safety.

The nurses, represented by National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU), say chronic short staffing of nurses and ancillary staff, high turnover rates, and a failure to recruit and retain experienced nurses is putting patients and staff members at risk.

“If nurses are outside, something is wrong,” said Marchelle Vernell, a registered nurse in interventional radiology and chief nurse representative for NNOC representative. “We are in an acute crisis of care right now. Things are difficult, they’re challenging. St. Louis University has the most critical patients in the nation, not just in the city, not just in the state, but in the nation. So we need the best nurses taking care of our patients in the inner city.

“When I became a nurse 38 years ago, I was taught that we provide holistic care. That you connect with your patient, that there’s such a thing as continuity of care where you knew your patient because you took care of them the few shifts that you had consecutively,” she said. “That is not happening right now and it makes me sad because the hospital and the administration is focusing on hiring new graduates and not retaining the seasoned, experienced nurses.”

At SLUH, the vacancy rate for RN positions has been more than 30 percent since the spring of 2022. SLUH nurses say they have been sounding the alarm for nearly two years and making suggestions to management about improving retention, with little progress. Since 2020, SLUH has hired more than 1,600 nurses, but those nurses have not stayed. Nationwide, there are more than a million registered nurses with active licenses who are choosing not to work at the bedside because of the hospital industry’s unsafe working conditions.

SLU HOSPITAL NURSES rallied outside the hospital July 19 to alert the public to chronic short staffing and failure to recruit and retain experienced RNs, which they say is putting patients and staff at risk. – Labor Tribune photo

“Patients at SLUH are some of the most vulnerable, marginalized, and underserved in the St. Louis area and they deserve quality care from well-staffed units,” said Earline Shepard, a registered nurse in the cardiac catheter lab at SLUH. “It is deeply disturbing that management has shown itself unwilling to adopt staffing standards that have been proven to save lives.”

SLUH nurses have documented regular short staffing throughout the hospital, which they say has jeopardized and delayed patient care. Chronic short staffing has also resulted in increased risk of violence for both nurses and patients.

“The issue is that hospital administration is focused on hiring new graduates but not addressing the reasons we are losing nurses at alarming rates,” said Sarah DeWilde, a registered nurse in the medical-surgical unit. “We have a revolving door of new nurses who aren’t getting the training and support they need and deserve. Experienced nurses provide invaluable mentorship to newer nurses. When experienced RNs leave, patients are also deprived of their knowledge.”

“Over the last few years, we have seen an increase in workplace violence,” said Jessica Tulk, a registered nurse in the emergency room at SLUH. “We know this violence is directly related to the short staffing in our hospital. As patients and their loved ones are forced to wait for treatment and medications, they can become agitated, confused, angry, and anxious. If we have appropriate staffing, we can deescalate tense situations or calm confused patients before the trouble starts.”

National Nurses Organizing Committee has represented the nurses at Saint Louis University Hospital since 2012.

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