Chants of “When we fight, we win” enveloped the corner of South Scheuber Road and Cooks Hill Road outside Providence Centralia Hospital Wednesday evening, as nurses and their unions representatives continued their ongoing bid for a new contract from hospital management.

Early Friday morning, The Chronicle learned through Providence Centralia Senior Communications Manager Chris Thomas that both Providence St. Peter Hospital and Providence Centralia had reached tentative agreements with UFCW 21. 

“Throughout this process, Providence has sought a collaborative relationship with nurses represented by UFCW, hoping for an agreement that benefits our nurses, as well as the community we serve. The ratification votes will be scheduled soon. We will wait until after the ratification votes to discuss details,” he said in an email. 

The report was confirmed by UFCW 21’s Special Projects Manager Tom Geiger.

Two days earlier, registered nurses Susan Fontana and Heidi Grant-Brown implored their colleagues to stand united in their battle with the health care organization during ongoing negotiation sessions in Seattle, where labor unions UFCW 21, WSNA and SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, along with Providence nurses are requesting safe staffing levels, recruitment/retainment of quality staff and improved benefits for healthcare workers.  

To date, about 13,000 staffers in Providence’s network of 13 facilities within Washington state have been working without a contract since June.  

“I came from Portland. I moved to the area. I went to work at Providence and I was amazed at the quality of nurses that we had. I was amazed at the level of education,” began Fontana, who’s been employed at the Centralia site for the past five years. “There were a few rough nights every once in a while. That’s not the case anymore; now it’s the norm … no CNAs (Certified Nursing Assistants), no help, cutbacks in everything. We have our gloves ripped all the time. I’ve spent 15 minutes looking for IV poles and pillows just to get a room ready for a (patient).”

She also noted a declining nurse-to-patient ratio in the emergency department due to what she argued was substandard compensation provided to nurses. 

“We’re losing nurses, experienced nurses to other hospitals,” Fontana told The Chronicle. “They can go south and make $8 an hour more or go north to our sister hospital, St. Peter’s in Olympia and/or St. John’s and make $5 to $8 more an hour. We try to retain them and hold on to them because we’ve put a lot of work and energy into them.” 

She said Providence Centralia typically invests one to two years in each of their nurse trainees before they go elsewhere once they realize their earning potential in other facilities. 

Just as concerning, continued Fontana, is how the recent strife between nurses and management has prompted nurses with five or more years of tenure to seek employment elsewhere. She added that simply “replacing them” isn’t enough for Providence Centralia’s nursing staff to continue offering quality patient services. 

“You can’t replace a seasoned nurse. It takes a good five years for a nurse to be competent. It’s not just nursing school, it’s the things we do that take years to learn. Nursing is one of those unique fields,” Fontana said. 

Meanwhile, both she and critical care nurse Lori Matson claimed the emergency department at Providence Centralia is being overrun and patient wait times have also increased, as cutbacks and high turnover continue to plague the remaining caregivers. 

Similarly, 21-year registered nurse Susie Durham, who attended the rally with her husband, Dallas, voiced her concerns that Providence Centralia “isn’t attracting young nurses,” which, she predicted, could have severe ramifications down the road. 

“We’re unsafely understaffed and we’re not just creating the kind of culture where we keep nurses long-term,” said the Chehalis resident. “You know, I can’t do this forever. Somebody’s got to pick up the mantle.” 

During the gathering, participants raised yellow lights to honor patients and support nurses, UFCW 21 labor rep Amirah Ziada-Mirziteh brought the group up to speed on recent developments, such as tentative agreements reached by the UFCW 21 Professional and Technical units at Providence Everett. This reportedly occurred only hours after a resolution was announced regarding an earlier tentative agreement achieved by UFCW 21’s Service and Maintenance workers at Sacred Heart in Spokane.

While hopeful for successful negotiations in Seattle this week, Matson, a 23-year Providence Centralia veteran, surmised the current impasse as being a product of the hospital’s morphing identity over the past few decades. 

“The bigger the corporation they get, the farther away the control got from our area,” said the longtime employee who remembered a different environment when the Sisters of Providence ran the facility in the 1980s. “Providence is the third biggest hospital organization in the country . The bigger they’ve gotten, the worse they’ve gotten on a local level.” 

Grant-Brown shared those sentiments by adding: “I know this cliché now, but we used to get turkeys on Thanksgiving, we’d get gifts at Christmas time. It was a very, very different place to work. It’s very different now and without our union support, we really wouldn’t be much better than a lot of the big corporations out there that don’t pay their employees much of anything.” 

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