By Neil Cotiaux, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
Frustrated by what they say are staffing shortagesand unsafe conditions for both patients and employees in the midst of a pandemic, registered nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville staged a protest Wednesday morning to air their grievances and gather additional public support for their cause.
Billed as a news conference and devoid of typical labor rally trappings like a street march or a blaring bullhorn, Mission RNs gathered in solidarity in the shadow of HCA Healthcare’s main campus at 509 Biltmore Ave., where they say the number of COVID-19 patients being cared for has reached an all-time high.
Wednesday morning’s event arose, pro-union nurses say, after hospital administrators and executives at HCA Healthcare, the for-profit owner of Mission, “failed to respond to an urgent letter” in July from Mission RNs warning about “rapidly deteriorating conditions” as the coronavirus pandemic grew worse.
“This ongoing COVID surge has only increased the risk of exposure, and infection is growing as nurses are not provided the backup of additional staff to protect ourselves and our patients,” said a pre-event statement attributed to Mission RN Sue Fischer. “This has become an emergency which is not acceptable.”
In its latest update on the number of in-hospital COVID-19 patients at Mission, William Hathaway, chief medical officer at Mission Health, said the hospital has the capability to care for a growing number of such cases.
“At the beginning of July, we were averaging around 20-25 (COVID-19) patients in the hospital, and then more recently, we’re up in the low 40 range, 40-45 patients in the hospital on average at a given time,” he said.
“We still have adequate capacity from a room point of view, from an intensive care unit point of view, from a protective equipment point of view and testing supplies to handle this volume right now,” Hathaway said.
But in Tuesday’s news release announcing Wednesday’s event, RNs cited employee concerns about the hospital, alleging that hospital practices were providing insufficient protection to nurses in various units against COVID-19 and were unfriendly to anyone discussing the situation with other staff.
They also alleged that patients have not been treated with proper care at times due to staffing problems.
Union voting begins at mid-August
As RNs and union organizers prepared for today’s event, the National Labor Relations Board announced that mail ballots will be sent to registered nurses at Mission Hospital on Aug. 18 so they can decide whether to join a union.
Votes will be counted on Sept. 16 by NLRB officials in the secret-ballot election, said Bradley Van Waus, the southern regional director for National Nurses Organizing Committee, an affiliate of National Nurses United.
Unionization efforts by Mission employees, which first got underway in 2019, gathered steam heading into 2020, and in March, National Nurses United formally petitioned the federal agency for the right to unionize within HCA’s North Carolina Division.
But as the coronavirus pandemic deepened, initial hearings before the board were postponed as desired by hospital management, frustrating pro-union Mission employees and helping to fuel tensions between the parties.
National Nurses United is seeking to represent all full-time, regular part-time and per diem registered nurses employed by Mission at 509 Biltmore Ave. and 428 Biltmore Ave. in Asheville. It expects about 1,600 employees to be represented by the union if it wins the election.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence” that NLRB’s announcement of an election date fell on the same day that RNs at Mission announced a protest event, Van Waus said.
“We know that collective action works.… You can’t disregard the voices of the nurses.”
Wednesday’s event in Asheville coincides with other protests at more than 200 hospitals around the country that are also being sponsored by National Nurses United.