900 Austin nurses walk out in what is expected to be the largest nurses strike in Texas history

Nurses at Ascension Seton Medical Center say that contract negotiations with the hospital have stalled.

By Sarah AschJune 27, 2023 11:13 am,

Nurses at Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin started a one-day strike this morning. The 900 unionized nurses announced a strike last week, intentionally allowing enough time for Ascension to hire temporary nurses to fill in. 

This is expected to be the largest nurses strike in Texas history. In a statement, Ascension told Austin TV station KXAN that the hospital has a plan to ensure no disruption in service.

Olivia Aldridge, who covers health care for KUT in Austin, said this story really starts in September, when Ascension Seton’s nursing staff voted to unionize. 

“They became part of the National Nurses United union and began negotiating their first contract with the hospital system not long after that,” Aldridge said. “The union says that at this point they’ve reached a stalemate over some key asks, and these are things that the nurses feel will help to recruit more nurses and, maybe more importantly, retain nurses at the hospital. One of those top priorities is that they want guaranteed safe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios.”

These ratios could vary from floor to floor and specialty to specialty, according to Aldridge. One example is on the medical surgical floor, where nurses say they would ideally take on no more than four patients at a time. Right now it’s usually more like five or six patients that a single nurse is responsible for, Aldridge said. 

“They say that when a nurse has more patients to take care of at once, that can translate to a lower standard of care,” she said. “But it also burns nurses out and they end up leaving the profession, which contributes to this major staffing crisis we’re seeing in the nursing industry.”

Ascension Seton says it was able to find a temporary replacement for every nurse who strikes today, according to Aldridge.

“Those temps are what people generally call ‘travel nurses.’ They are qualified nurses who fill in in health care settings all over the place. They’ve been used a lot throughout the pandemic, including in Texas,” she said. “Striking nurses have told me that they’re confident that patients will get adequate care today and that they’ll be safe. But their position is that they get better care with the staff that are experienced at the facility. And that’s one reason that they planned this as a single-day strike.”

Despite the fact that the strike was only planned to last 24 hours, Ascension Seton announced a lock out, which means nurses who strike will not be allowed back for several days.  

“The hospital system says that in order to secure an agreement with the staffing agency to get temporary nurses on board, they had to commit to a four-day minimum contract,” Aldridge said. “So Ascension says that the striking nurses won’t be allowed back on campus until that contract is up on July 1. They won’t be allowed back into the building essentially for four days, even though they’d planned on just striking today. And those travel nurses will then keep working those additional three days.

The union is not happy about this. They think it wasn’t necessary and that it’s an intimidation tactic, basically. Although one nurse did tell me that he thinks it’s a move that’s ended up galvanizing nurses more, if anything.”

Aldridge said nurses plan to picket outside the hospital during their strike.

“They walked out of the hospital at 6:45 a.m. to kick this thing off,” she said. “They’ll be picketing outside the hospital throughout the day, although they do plan to take a few hours off in the peak heat this afternoon. They also had a really big rally at 9:00 with some community leaders joining them, including U.S. Representative Greg Casar and others. And tomorrow morning, bright and early, these nurses say they plan to show up to the hospital, planning to work even if they can’t get in the building.”

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