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Providence coffers swell as nurses struggle to keep basic earned benefits | Guest Opinion

When Providence Health added the Kadlec Health System to its roster of West Coast hospitals five years ago, the corporate health-care giant touted its commitment to serving the community. Changes, executives said, would be minor. Only the name would change.

Half a decade later, the words have a hollow ring to the 900 nurses at Kadlec — longtime members of the Tri-Cities community who dedicate themselves every day to patient care and safety. We care for families of the Tri-Cities because our families too are part of the Tri-Cities.

Nurses have been seeking a new contract with Providence for nearly a year. The corporate entity, which made $24.4 billion in revenue last year, will not negotiate. Instead, its leaders intend to cut the earned paid time off (PTO) and erase the earned sick leave hard-working nurses accrue every year.

These draconian proposals to strip nurses of their basic benefits have forced nurses into a difficult position. We are fighting to keep what we have, nothing more. Yes, nurses are considering a possible strike. It’s a choice of last resort.

Another choice is available: Providence executives could listen, and understand that their decisions present a threat to patient safety and the well being of their staff.

Kadlec nurses represent the frontline of patient care.

For Providence, we are the gears, the nuts and the bolts of the health-care machine, but for fearful patients we are the human touch — what patients and our community value most. Kadlec nurses live and work in the Tri-Cities community, raising their own families.

While Providence casts itself as a nonprofit organization for tax purposes, it’s a fact that the corporation is a money-making entity.

The acquisition of Kadlec, one community hospital in a stable of 50 up and down the West Coast, was a piece of a larger strategy to gain control of the market share.

In business terms, it has worked. Providence CEO Rod Hochman earns $10 million annually. Providence increased his salary by 157 percent between 2015 and 2017 — yet Providence executives tell Kadlec nurses they must give up their hard-earned benefits. The question is, for whom?

“You expect and want so much from me,” says Joyce McMurphy, a long-serving Kadlec nurse who wrote to Providence executives. “And yet you also want and expect to take away so much from me. I love nursing, and I know that bedside nursing can be a very stressful job sometimes. I knew that when I started. I knew that I would be working nights, weekends and holidays. I just want to know that when I need my time off to regroup, rest or care for my family that I will have the time and ability to do so. I have earned this, and I would like to keep it.”

Earned paid time off — vacation time — provides a rare and needed respite from that work and stress. It’s not a bargaining chip and it shouldn’t be when you’ve earned it.

The patients in the Tri-Cities community and the nurses who serve them deserve better. They are more than nameless cells in a spreadsheet.

Nurses are often the first to comfort patients and families facing the worst moments of their lives. They embrace dying patients in their final hours. They help deliver precious newborns to their moms and dads. Nurses work long, arduous shifts. They grind themselves down, sometimes at the expense of their own families, to ensure that patients receive the best possible care. The work environment is a perfect recipe for burnout.

Oddly enough, Providence executives nodded at this possibility earlier this year, in a corporate press release issued from its headquarters in Renton. The statement announced the expansion of an in-house program aimed at addressing burnout.

“We want a solution that can help our caregivers address these concerns using their own sense of personal purpose paired with our culture of compassion and empathy,” a Providence executive said.

Kadlec nurses couldn’t help rolling their eyes a bit at the corporate happy talk, especially after months of fruitless negotiations, and demands from management to give up the best remedy for work-related burnout: give us the time we earned.

Vanessa Douglas and Martha Galvez are Kadlec nurses who are part of the bargaining unit of the Washington State Nurses Association representing more than 900 Kadlec registered nurses.