EVERETT — Providence nurses facing a dire staffing shortage in Everett sought help and support from the City Council on Wednesday night.
During public comment 10 people who said they were nurses at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett said they worry about having too many patients to properly care for them and called the low staffing level “unsafe.”
Some asked the council to mandate hazard pay from the hospital for employees. That could at least slow the loss of nurses, said Kelli Johnson, an emergency room nurse.
“Many of us are working overtime,” EmmaLee Bodner said. “And there was a period of time when Providence was able to provide nurses with bonuses or extra money to help them come in.”
Conditions at Providence’s Everett hospital haven’t changed since earlier this month when the emergency room was overwhelmed, spokesperson Casey Calamusa said.
Hospitals across the state are struggling with employee shortages and lots of patients. That led Providence to pause admissions for its pediatric unit and redeploy those workers to other units temporarily, he said.
Juliann Bynum, a nurse for 28 years, said she hasn’t seen a staff shortage like this in her career. She said she had to prioritize between helping a patient with low blood sugar and an elderly patient who had fallen before they could get to the bathroom.
“I have a very real concern for my patients’ safety on a daily basis and a struggle to even meet their basic needs,” Bynum said.
Nurses in almost every department are affected here and nationwide, Providence’s chief nursing officer Janine Holbrook said. The emergency department is experiencing some of the worst strain, as patients wait to be discharged to a guardian or a skilled nursing facility.
“Our workloads today are heavier than we want them to be in many areas,” Holbrook said. “Our nurses are very stressed. … I am so grateful to all of our nurses. They have done so much and continue to do so much. These heavy workloads are heartbreaking to me.”
Based on the low-acuity patient volume she has seen for things like sprains and strains at the emergency department, getting those who don’t have critical medical needs to instead visit walk-in clinics could take some burden off the hospital, Holbrook said.
Council members Mary Fosse, Paula Rhyne and Don Schwab agreed to review how they can support the nurses. That includes through pay or a letter to other authorities including Gov. Jay Inslee.
“It is very important to do our best to keep our community safe,” Fosse said.
But the council may not have power over compensation, city attorney David Hall said. Some of the nurses’ requests were “unfortunately outside council’s authority to do anything about” such as collective bargaining, labor management or workplace safety issues, he said.
“It’s never really been determined that hazard pay can be mandated by a local city council,” Hall said.
Some governments, including Edmonds and Snohomish County, required large grocery stores to increase their employees’ hourly wages by $4. Edmonds’ rule was to remain as long as the governor’s state of emergency was in effect.
The problem with the nurses’ request is it may not qualify as hazard pay, Hall said. Their request sounded more about staffing issues than actually mitigating a hazard. The pandemic, while ongoing, isn’t the same emergency as during the past two years, he said.
Providence has used travel nurses to bolster the ranks for a premium cost as they often get high pay for short stints. But their rates have dropped recently, Holbrook said.
In August, the nurses union and Providence agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that raised pay 3%, another 2% in January, and more depending on experience in February. It also included bonuses of $1,500, $2,000 and potentially another $1,500 this coming December.
The hospital’s administration doesn’t envision further pay increases in response to the nurses’ request to the council.
“We offer competitive wages,” Holbrook said.
Providence is trying to hire over 250 nurses for its two Everett hospitals.
The health care company is hosting a virtual hiring fair for its emergency department next month, offers referral bonuses, and is looking to use licensed practical nurses, certified nursing assistants and nursing students to help manage workloads.
But its leaders are not sure when staffing will stabilize.
“I wish I had a crystal ball,” Holbrook said. “We’re pulling every possible lever.”