Saint Louis University Hospital Nurses Protest Understaffing, Low Pay

click to enlarge SLUH Hospital nurses rallied to protest understaffing this morning. - Jessica Rogen
Jessica Rogen
SLUH Hospital nurses rallied to protest understaffing this morning.

A line of nurses gathered outside of SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, holding a long fabric signs stamped with handprints. They chanted and shook noisemakers to protest conditions inside the hospital. One nurse held a sign that read “Honk if you support nurses” and passing cars responded frequently in kind.

National Nurses Organizing Committee, the hospital nurses’ union, says that “chronic understaffing” and low pay are at the heart of the reasons for the rally. It’s the latest measure that nurse organizers and the union have taken to bring their concerns to the attention of the hospital administration and the public.

The gathered nurses and supporters chanted a version of “Everywhere We Go.”

“Fighting for our patients, fighting for our families,” the chant went, “so we tell them, we are the nurses, the mighty, mighty nurses.”

click to enlarge SLUH Union Labor Representative Jenn Dean talks with the protesting nurses. - Jessica Rogen
Jessica Rogen
SLUH Union Labor Representative Jenn Dean talks with the protesting nurses.

At the end of April, the SLUH nurses passed a no-confidence vote against Rita Fowler, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer, and Chris Greenley, human resources director.

Chief among the nurses’ complaints were concerns about severe understaffing and broken promises about pay surrounding hiring, retention, shift incentives and overtime. The union says the hospital administration, particularly Fowler, disregarded the nurses' low morale and retention rates.

Union Labor Representative Jenn Dean says that previous effort was ignored by the administration, who subsequently issued a statement in support of Fowler. Dean says that the hospital has “had a precipitous drop” in filling vacancies since September and that there’s now more than 300 nursing vacancies.

RN Bill Kraus, who has worked at SLUH as a cardiac nurse for 2 ½ years and been a nurse for 20 years, decided to attend the rally because of staffing issues. When he was first hired, he says they’d have no more than three patients to a nurse who would also have a tech to help.

click to enlarge The nurses chanted a version of "Everywhere We Go." - Jessica Rogen
Jessica Rogen
The nurses chanted a version of "Everywhere We Go."

“Now I have five patients,” he says. “We’re lucky to have a tech. The patients aren’t getting healthier. They’re getting more acute.”

He says low staffing is an issue because he has to focus on more acute patients, leaving those who need something simple, such as a glass of water, waiting. “We want to help people,” he says.

Cressie Lindsey, who works cardiovascular ICU and transplant ICU, agrees. Lindsey, who has been at SLUH for two years and been a nurse for 23 years, says that most ICU nurses shouldn’t have more than two patients and those caring for patients with recent transplants shouldn't have more than one patient.

“What’s happening is we’re having to take extra patients, and it’s just not safe,” she says. “Your patient down the hall is desatting. Your patient down the hall, their heart rate is up or their heart rate is down, and we can’t get to them. We want to make sure we’re right there with those two patients …. Now we don’t want our loved ones flatlining because we can’t get to them because we have too many patients.”

Kraus points to the hospital administrators having business rather than medical backgrounds. Lindsey says they should come down to the floor and see what nurses are experiencing.

click to enlarge Short staffing and low pay is at the heart of the issue for the nurses. - Jessica Rogen
Jessica Rogen
Short staffing and low pay is at the heart of the issue for the nurses.

RN Tina Magruder says that money is a big reason behind the shortage and that SLUH pays on the lower end for area hospitals.

“A lot of people have left to go work for an agency to make the higher dollar amount,” she says. “We have so many agency nurses. If we didn’t have them on staff, we would not have a functioning hospital, and if they would just pay us more than maybe we would have more people want to stay.”

This week the Missouri Hospital Association released its 2022 Workforce Report, which highlighted that nurse understaffing is a problem across the profession in the state. RN vacancies grew to 19.8 percent from 12 percent the year before.

But Kraus says that isn’t the reason for SLUH’s problems.

“We were short staffed way before COVID,” Kraus says. “Don’t let them blow smoke up your ass.”

This story has been updated to correct the chant lyrics.