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SLU nurses want help with abusive patients and better overall working conditions

Kim Eichelberger, a registered nurse, protests for better working conditions outside of SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital on Grand Boulevard on Tuesday, June 13.  "Staffing has reached kind of crisis levels in a lot of hospitals. But fortunately, we have a union here that can actually stand up for nurses," she said.
Ulaa Kuziez
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Kim Eichelberger, a registered nurse, demonstrates for better working conditions outside SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital on Grand Boulevard on Tuesday. "Staffing has reached kind of crisis levels in a lot of hospitals. But fortunately, we have a union here that can actually stand up for nurses," she said.

As a nurse at St. Louis University Hospital, Jessica Tulk expects physical and verbal assault by patients on any given day.

Violence against nurses is one of the many problems union officials and staff called attention to at a protest Tuesday outside the hospital, which is part of the SSM Health system.

Signs held by protesters show what the National Nurses United union is advocating for, along with signatures of St. Louis nurses who endorse the cause on Tuesday, July 13.
Ulaa Kuziez
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Signs held by protesters show what the National Nurses United union is advocating for, along with signatures of St. Louis nurses who endorse the cause on Tuesday.

Unionized nurses from National Nurses United gathered for a national day of action to call for better working conditions, including higher wages and security intervention during volatile interactions with patients. They also asked SSM Health to hire more registered nurses.

“These are life-and-death decisions that are being made by nurses [who] are not being given the tools that they need to make them safely,” said Tulk, who works in the hospital’s emergency department. “The threat of violence has increased so much.”

In a statement, SSM Health officials said they are “committed to providing safe, compassionate, high-quality care for our patients and the community.”

At the protest, nurses said one of the biggest factors in increased violence is a lack of staffing. St. Louis University Hospital’s vacancy rate has been nearly 40% for three years.

“It's not really fair for us to ask the patients and families when they're at their most vulnerable states to ‘be patient with us. We're short staffed,’” said Rachel Williams, a registered nurse at the hospital.

Williams said she thinks it’s up to the hospital to hire more nurses and not up to the patients to be more understanding while they wait hours for treatment.

The vacancies aren’t caused by an overall shortage of nurses, union officials said. According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, there are more than 4 million actively licensed RNs, but only 3 million are currently employed.

“In the United States, there are enough nurses to fill the positions in hospitals. There are no nurses that are willing to work in the conditions that they're working in right now,” said Sarah DeWilde, a registered nurse and union steward for her unit.

To fill the vacancies, SSM Health started hiring traveling nurses. But to staff, they are just a temporary fix.

“They don’t know our population as well. They don’t know our hospital as well,” Tulk said. “They're getting paid twice what we're getting paid, and we're doing the work of training them.”

For Tulk, training new traveling nurses every few weeks is too big a burden.

“Wouldn't it be a whole lot better if we could just treat staff nurses fairly and respectfully pay them for the job that we're asking them to do?” she asked.

The hospital’s contract with their staff nurses is up on Thursday. Usually, they sign a new one on the day of expiration. But this time around, DeWilde said they’re nowhere near that point.

Hadas Becker, left, and Marchelle Vernell, right
Emily Woodbury
Registered nurses Marchelle Vernell and Hadas Becker are sounding the alarm on what they say is a lack of safe staffing levels at SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital.

She said she’s waiting for SSM Health to put something in writing that guarantees nurse safety, patient happiness and better compensation.

For DeWilde, it isn’t safe to have nurses caring for five to six patients every day, and the only solution is for the hospital to hire and retain more staff nurses.

“I want a line of nurses in HR, just filling up the second floor, because they want to work here because [these are] the best conditions, best place to work,” she said.

Despite their qualms with the hospital, nurses at the protest said they were hesitant to leave.

“I love our patient population. I love the people that I work with,” Williams said. “I just need more of them, so that I can do my job better, we can help the community better, and everybody can be happier.”

SSM Health registered nurses Marchelle Vernell and Hadas Becker joined "St. Louis on the Air" on June 21, 2023 to discuss the ongoing contract negotiations with their employer. Listen to the conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or Stitcher or by clicking the play button below.

SLU Hospital nurses join "St. Louis on the Air" to discuss their push for better working conditions

Lilley Halloran was a Summer '23 News Intern at St. Louis Public Radio. She is studying Journalism and Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri.