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Nurses Union Continues To Protest 'Unsafe' Staffing Levels At SLU Hospital

Members of the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United union protest what they refer to as unsafe staffing levels at St. Louis University Hospital in Midtown on Sept. 9.
Members of the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United union protest what they refer to as unsafe staffing levels at St. Louis University Hospital in Midtown on Sept. 9.

For the second time in three years, union nurses at SSM Health-St. Louis University Hospital are protesting what they call unsafe staffing levels at the Midtown hospital.

There aren’t enough employees at the facility, said representatives of the National Nurses Organizing Committee, which represents the nurses at the hospital. Nurses constantly have to care for more patients than they can handle. Long wait times mean patients can become agitated and violent, putting employees at risk, representatives say. 

“Nowadays, patients are sicker and needing more assistance and medications, and just having that little extra monitoring, an extra set of hands [can help],” said Sarah Dewilde, a trauma nurse and member of the collective bargaining committee, during an informational picket Monday morning. “We want more of a say in what is safer for the patients.”

The nurses’ latest contract expired in June. The 2016 agreement was the first between the union and SSM Health, which bought St. Louis University Hospital in 2015. Staffing levels were a sticking point in those negotiations as well.

Nurses also accuse the St. Louis-based hospital system of attempting to squelch union support among younger nurses. SSM officials deny those claims but say they do support an employee’s choice to not join a union.

The hospital employs nearly 650 nurses, and about 590 of them are dues-paying union members, according to union leadership. There are currently more than 80 vacant nursing positions at the hospital.

Staffing levels at the hospital are safe, said Jennifer Garnica, SSM Health interim chief nursing officer.

Nursing shortages are a problem across the nation, she said. She noted that 12% of positions nationwide — and more than 3,600 nursing positions in the St. Louis metropolitan area — are unfilled.

“There’s absolutely not enough nurses for the need that there is in our country,” Garnica said. “That’s a challenge that everyone is facing, not just St. Louis University Hospital.”

Union representatives contend hospitals can attract more employees with better benefits.

“It’s like Vegas: If you build it, they will come,” said Marchelle Vernell, the union’s chief nurse representative. “If you pay well, if you support your nurses, we believe nurses from other hospitals will come.”

SSM recently gave raises to hospital nurses with fewer than eight years' experience, but not to others, she said. That’s one of the reasons older nurses are leaving for other hospitals, she said.

“Seasoned nurses, it doesn’t feel like we’re valued,” she said.

Hospital officials can’t comment on the raises, Garnica said.

“When you talk about recruitment in the market, you certainly have to be competitive,” she said. “Nurses have a choice where they want to go, and for a new nurse, pay is going to be something that is extremely important to them.”

More contract negotiations are scheduled for later this month.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Petit_Smudge

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Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover. A longitme NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in the Kingshighway Hills neighborhood, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.