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Three-hundred and ninety-nine nurses and union members picketed outside the Dudley Street entrance of Women & Infants Hospital on April 11, calling on the Providence hospital to lift its hiring freeze and fill vacant positions with permanent, local workers instead of hiring temporary, subcontracted “traveler” nurses.
At issue was hospital staffing plans for the summer, when the volume of births increases, and there is a need to hire more nurses, according to Patrick J. Quinn, executive vice president of District 1199, the health care workers union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, which represents some 1,600 workers at Women & Infants.
“There are plenty of nurses in Rhode Island looking for work,” Quinn said. “There are plenty of nurses whose hours have been reduced at other hospitals who would be happy to work significant hours during the summer.”
Instead, he continued, the hospital has made contingency plans to hire between 15 and 20 “traveler” nurses – nurses hired through an agency on a temporary basis and who are provided housing by the hospital.
“We don’t have ‘travelers’ here now, and we don’t want them here,” Quinn said.
Angelleen Peters-Lewin, chief nursing officer and senior vice president of patient-care services at Women & Infants, said that the hospital doesn’t yet know if it will need to hire “agency RNs” during the summer months.
“Our plan is to have our own staff care for our patients and families as much as possible,” she said. “Patient care is dynamic, complex and at times unpredictable. We want to make sure that we meet the needs of patients and families reliably and consistently.” The decision to explore the use of agency staff, Peters-Lewin continued, “is not a component of our plan to decrease cost.”
Current nursing staffing at Women & Infants is stretched thin, often dependent upon per-diem nurses such as Kristen Snow to fill in the gaps in coverage, according to the union.
Snow, a union member who currently works as a per-diem nurse at Women & Infants, primarily in triage and in the Mother-Baby Unit, often logs a 60-hour workweek.
For Snow, the conflict reflects the hospital’s apparent unwillingness to invest in hiring local nurses in full-time, permanent positions. “I work hard, I really love what I do, and I love the place where I work,” she told Providence Business News. “I can’t imagine [the hospital] staffed by people who don’t really care about it.”
In her current position as a per-diem worker, Snow said that she receives few, if any, benefits. “I don’t get paid for sick time, I don’t get a vacation, and I don’t get to participate in employee health screenings,” she said.
Snow does get paid time-and-a-half for working more than 40 hours a week and more than eight hours a day. But, for her, given her dedication to the hospital, she doesn’t understand the rationale behind the possible hiring of “traveler” nurses instead of investing in local nurses such as herself. “I don’t know what the logic is. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The current hiring freeze, which Peters-Lewin said had been in place since early December 2011, has resulted in Women & Infants carefully reviewing all vacancies. “All position replacements are scrutinized to determine the impact on patient care and safety and our ability to pay,” she said.
The union and its nurses look at the issue through different lens.
“There are local nurses and health care workers who would love the chance to work at Women & Infants,” said Sukie Ream, an RN from the hospital’s Labor & Delivery Room. “The hospital should post permanent positions and hire people from our community.”
The issue of staffing of nurses at Women & Infants promises to continue past the summer and into the fall, as the union’s current collective bargaining agreement with Women & Infants expires on Dec. 1. •