EVERETT — As Monica McCreery’s father was in the final stages of dying, her employer, short-staffed, wanted her to leave his bedside and attend to a patient, according to the hospice nurse.
“I felt pressured to go because there was no one else,” McCreery said.
In the end, she was able to say goodbye, making it back to her father before he passed away a few days before Christmas.
For nearly two and half years, McCreery and her colleagues at Providence Hospice and Homecare of Snohomish County have been asking for reduced caseloads and higher wages.
The workers, who include nurses, social workers, aides, chaplains and case managers, voted to unionize in 2016 — joining SEIU Healthcare 1199NW — and have been at the negotiating table with the home care and hospice agency ever since.
“Our hospice team is well-staffed,” said Mary Beth Walker, a spokeswoman for the health care organization, in an email. “Whenever there is turnover, we work quickly to fill vacant positions to ensure caregivers’ caseloads do not get too high and to ensure the highest patient safety.”
On Jan. 10, the hospice care workers were back rallying in front of Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. This time, they raised a 24-foot inflatable balloon shaped like a rocket to draw attention to the high salaries many executives receive. The same balloon was flying the day before in Seattle at Swedish Medical Center’s First Hill campus where workers are voicing similar complaints. The agency is part of Providence Health & Services and the broader Providence St. Joseph Health system that was started by Catholic nuns.
The publicity stunt last week was part of the union’s “Providence Has Lost Its Way” campaign. A handful of workers were also out distributing fliers which accused the nonprofit of prioritizing executive pay and profits at the expense of patient needs.
Dr. Rod Hochman, Providence St. Joseph CEO, took home over $10 million in total compensation in 2017, an increase of more than 150 percent from the previous year, according to public tax documents. At least 14 other executives earned more than $1 million in salary and benefits in 2017.
There’s clearly plenty of money to hire more workers and increase pay, McCreery said.
“We’ve repeatedly come to the bargaining table in good faith to develop an agreement that benefits our caregivers, as well as the community we serve,” Walker said in a prepared statement. “Among the many items on the table, we are offering a competitive wage proposal with guaranteed annual increases.”
At the latest bargaining session, which was in December, the union says the offer presented was the same one proposed a year and a half ago, which included a 1 percent annual increase.
Walker declined to comment on the details of the negotiations.
“We are hopeful a mutually agreeable contract will be worked out soon,” Walker said.
Diane Flynn, whose mother was seen by caregivers from Providence last year, called the high executive salaries shameful. Flynn is a retired teachers’ union representative who lives in Granite Falls and has supported the hospice workers.
“When they were caring for my mom, the empathy and the care they showed me gave me strength,” she said.
Due to caseloads, appointments sometimes needed to be rescheduled or a different caregiver would have to be sent, she said.
“I knew they were stressed under the workload, but when they were with my mom or me they were 100 percent present,” she said. “I heard from them, not in a complaining way, that they wished they could be here more.”
Patients and families aren’t getting the care they need because of the high caseloads, said April Frazier, a chaplain with Providence Hospice and Homecare of Snohomish County.
“The Sisters would be heartbroken and shocked at what has happened after they turned over leadership,” she said.
Frazier said the health care organization has used questionable tactics to delay negotiating a contract.
The talks have become so fractured the two sides can’t even agree on how often they are willing to meet.
The union says the health care agency wants to meet once a month. Walker, the spokeswoman with the health care organization, said both sides mutually decided to bargain every four to six weeks.
The groups have met for 30 bargaining sessions, Walker said.
Workers haven’t ruled out another strike. In December 2017, the union held a three-day walkout.
“We’ve been bargaining and are not moving forward. What else do you do?” said Florence Gustafson, a nurse with the organization. “We are very devoted to our patients. It’s not something we would do lightly.”
The union represents about 230 workers at Providence Hospice and Homecare and a total of 30,000 members across the state.
Lizz Giordano: 425-374-4165; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @lizzgior.