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Nurses at Kansas City-area hospitals are prepared to strike as they kick off contract talks

Research Medical Center on Meyer Boulevard is one of two HCA-owned area hospitals where the nurses union is prepared to strike over contract negotiations.
Scott Canon/The Beacon
Research Medical Center on Meyer Boulevard is one of two HCA-owned area hospitals where the nurses union is prepared to strike over contract negotiations.

About 1,000 nurses at Research Medical Center in Kansas City and Menorah Medical Center in Overland Park want more support and higher staffing levels. They started negotiations for a new contract this week with the hospitals’ owner, HCA Healthcare, a for-profit hospital giant with profits topping $5 billion.

When nurses rallied outside Research Medical Center this week to kick off contract negotiations, the refrain rang familiar.

“Hey HCA,” the nurses’ signs read. “Put patients over profits.”

In an increasingly unionized health care industry, still recovering from the pandemic, nurses across the country demand that hospitals beef up staffing and improve working conditions. And, when bargaining doesn’t work, they insist they’re ready to walk off the job.

Kansas City nurses from Research in Kansas City and Menorah Medical Center in Overland Park, both owned by HCA Healthcare, want to make it clear that they are prepared to fight for change in their new contract.

About 1,000 nurses at the two hospitals are working under a contract that will expire May 31. Their union, National Nurses United (NNU), said 150 nurses left jobs at Research last year, while 89 left Menorah. The union wants HCA to improve nurse retention and schedule more nurses to work each shift.

The union said nurses are “prepared to make demands for their new agreements that will improve patient care by addressing critical issues with staffing and safety, and services at their hospitals.”

In a statement, HCA, which reported 2023 net income of $5.2 billion, called its staffing at Research and Menorah “safe and appropriate.”

HCA’s statement also said the two area hospitals had added 842 members to its “nursing organization” in 2023 and were “building our nursing pipeline.” The statement touted recently announced plans to invest $34.5 million in the Research College of Nursing.

“We value our nurses and are hopeful that we can quickly reach an agreement on a new contract that is fair and reasonable for both sides,” the statement said.

But Cheryl Rodarmel, a rehabilitation nurse from Research who will be at the negotiating table, said the existing conditions leave nurses exhausted.

Rodarmel, who has worked at Research for three decades, often has to care for six patients at a time. She worries about patients falling and not getting enough care.

“Nurses are being morally injured every day because we’re not given the resources that we need to provide the care to our patients,” she said.

In strikes and contract negotiations around the country, unionized nurses often echo that notion of being “morally injured” — when a person feels they have been forced to take part in something that violates their principles.

After COVID’s heavy toll and an ongoing drive among many hospitals to cut costs, the industry has seen a year with more than two dozen strikes around the country. Nurses say they come face-to-face with patients they can’t adequately care for. Increasingly, they are lining up behind labor unions to demand change.

NNU, the union representing Research and Menorah nurses, also represents 950 nurses at two Ascension Via Christi hospitals in Wichita. For close to a year, those nurses have been struggling to come to an agreement on their first contract, a process that has led them to walk off the job twice since June — and forcing the hospitals to pay premium prices for replacements. And earlier this month they vowed to strike again if progress isn’t made.

Nurses in Missouri and Kansas are far from alone. Just at HCA-owned hospitals, NNU said it is representing thousands of nurses this year in contract negotiations with 18 hospitals in six states. And the union’s climbing membership — up to 225,000 from 150,000 pre-pandemic — marks a national trend in health care.

More workers in the industry, including nurses, doctors in training, and other health care workers, are joining unions and, increasingly, walking off the job to demand better working conditions and higher pay.

Of the 33 major work stoppages the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year, 14 took place in health care. And that’s only strikes or lockouts involving 1,000 or more workers. Nurse Together, a website that focuses on the profession, counted 27 nursing strikes last year, including the largest health care strike in U.S. history, when 75,000 nurses, technicians and support staff walked away from jobs at Kaiser Permanente in October.

Union representatives consistently point to the same reason for the increase in labor actions: a shortage of nurses. The issue became glaring in many hospitals during the pandemic. Now they pose the central backdrop to nursing strikes — and one reason more nurses feel emboldened to unionize. Their skills are in high demand, giving them bargaining table leverage.

Hospital companies tend to argue that they face a shortage of nurses available. Unions typically counter that nurses are fleeing the field because of working conditions.

A 2022 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that health care workers represented by unions between 2009 and 2021 made better wages and got better benefits — like full premium-covered health insurance and retirement benefits — than those without unions. The study also found that unions helped erase the pay disparity between white workers and racial and ethnic minority groups.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that registered nurses working in Kansas City in 2022 had a mean annual salary of $76,580, compared with $68,130 in 2019, the year before the pandemic. Nationally, the mean salary for nurses was $89,010 in 2022, compared with $77,460 in 2019.

Nurses from Research and Menorah have butted heads with HCA before. In the fall of 2020, the height of COVID, nurses at Research filed a complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration demanding better protections against the virus. In their last contract, Rodamel said, they gained protections for members’ paid time off so that nurses no longer have to use their leave if they get sick caring for patients.

The company also has a history with the Service Employees International Union. In 2021, that union lost a decertification vote at Research, meaning employees — including patient care technicians, certified nursing assistants, imaging technologists and respiratory therapists — voted to ditch the union’s representation.

Before the decertification vote became official, and after the union members had secured a new contract, Research stopped recognizing the union. A National Labor Relations Board judge later ruled that the hospital had violated federal labor law. The union was still decertified and no longer represents employees at the hospital.

Suzanne King Raney is The Kansas City Beacon's health reporter. During her newspaper career, she has covered education, local government and business. At The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Business Journal she wrote about the telecommunications industry. Email her at suzanne@thebeacon.media.
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