Wichita nurses win contract after threatening third strike in a year

About 1,000 nurses at Ascension Via Christi’s St. Francis and St. Joseph hospitals said their first contract isn’t perfect, but is a foundation to build on. It provides staffing level requirements and pay raises to nurses.

by Suzanne King

Union nurses ratified contracts with two Wichita hospitals this week, averting a third strike in less than a year and beating the odds against new unions getting first-time contracts at all.

Nearly 1,000 registered nurses at Ascension Via Christi’s St. Francis and St. Joseph hospitals voted to ratify two-year contracts. The union said the deals include safer staffing levels, improved safety for patients and a bump in pay for nurses.

The union said the contract will give nurses an average salary increase of 14%, with some getting a raise of more than 50%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that registered nurses working in Wichita in 2022 had a mean annual salary of $68,800, compared with the national mean salary of $89,010.

At St. Francis, where nurses first voted to unionize in November 2022, 96% voted for ratifying the contract. At St. Joseph, where nurses unionized in March 2023, 100% supported ratification. 

The Wichita nurses had walked off the job — forcing the hospitals to hire temporary replacements — twice to protest what they said were the hospitals’ scheduling policies and spare staffing levels. They pledged in March to strike again if they didn’t get a contract.

“We weren’t going to back down,” said Marvin Ruckle, an RN who has worked at St. Joseph for 34 years and was part of the union’s negotiating team. “They finally saw our determination that we’ve had this whole time and realized they needed to move the needle.”

In a written statement a spokesperson for Ascension, the St. Louis-based hospital chain that owns both hospitals, said the company was pleased with the nurses’ vote.

“These contracts respect the needs of our registered nurses and create a solid foundation for a collaborative and respectful working relationship,” the statement said. 

Ascension has been in the national spotlight in recent years, accused of trimming staffing too much in its quest to cut costs. Critics said Ascension hospitals were largely left flat-footed by COVID and still don’t have enough nurses working every shift. 

The hospital chain, which reported $182 million in revenue in 2022 and saw income jump to $18.6 million from $8.7 million in 2021, has a number of hospitals with newly unionized nurses. Strikes are also becoming more common. 

That is true at hospitals across the United States. Nurse Together, a website that tracks strikes, counted 36 nurse strikes in 2023, compared with 15 two years earlier. Nurses are demanding better staffing levels and higher pay.

Nurses in Wichita said they believe their new contracts, while not perfect, include important concessions. Chief among them, they said, are promises on nurse-to-patient ratios. For example, the contracts stipulate that the hospitals’ intensive care units can have no more than two patients to one nurse. And emergency department nurses can have no more than four patients each.

Nurses said those are big improvements from the conditions they have been seeing at the two hospitals. Shelly Rader, an emergency department nurse at St. Francis, said that on a recent night shift six nurses on duty were caring for 65 patients.

If the hospitals don’t comply with the staffing ratios, the contract has a procedure for nurses to report that, and it stipulates that union representatives will have access to address it with hospital management.

Studies show that it can take months and years for newly formed unions to ratify a first contract. Often, they never get one. Experts say that’s because U.S. labor laws only require companies to negotiate in good faith, but do very little to force them to agree on a contract.

Nurses in Wichita said they know they beat those odds by getting their first contract. And as they look to next year when they will have to start negotiating again for their second contract, they are optimistic. 

“The contract isn’t perfect,” said Lisa Watson, an ICU nurse at St. Francis. “But it’s a first contract. It is a foundation for us to build on.”

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon