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Mission nurses embark on historic unionization effort

Prior to COVID19, nurses at Mission Hospital, now owned by HCA Healthcare has launched a campaign to form a nurse union in hopes of improving working conditions and wage discrepancies. When the pandemic hit, healthcare workers switched their focus to caring for patients and the fight to unionize was put on the backburner. As the pandemic resulted in furloughs and layoffs across the entire healthcare field, nurses with Mission Hospital refocused their efforts and now moving forward with laser focus.

As of 8:30 a.m., Aug. 11, there were 38 lab-confirmed COVID positive inpatients in Mission Health hospitals; 33 are at Mission Hospital; 1 at Highlands-Cashiers Hospital; 4 at Mission Hospital McDowell. The number is nearly double than just a month ago.

Last week, registered nurses at Mission Hospital staged a press conference in Asheville in hopes of bringing attention to the staffing shortages and what they consider to be unsafe conditions for both patients and employees in the midst of a pandemic. The press conference was directed to the public asking for help, after a July letter from Mission RNs to HCA leadership regarding the “rapidly deteriorating conditions” wet unanswered.

Mission RNs, who petitioned the NLRB in March for the vote, have said they are seeking to strengthen their collective voice, with a union contract, to address critical patient safety concerns at the hospital.

“We are elated to finally have the opportunity to proceed with a vote to build a democratic union, with a unified voice to protect our patients and our colleagues to assure the entire Asheville community that they can count on the high-quality care they need and deserve,” said Mission RN Stephanie Grant.

On March 6, 1,600 registered nurses petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to form a union, a massive organizing push in the country’s second-least unionized state. The National Labor Relations Board just announced that mail ballots are being sent to registered nurses at Mission Hospital beginning Aug. 18. The ballots will give all RN nurses at Mission the opportunity to vote whether or not to unionize. The votes will be tallied on September 16 by the National Labor Relations Board.

In 1959, North Carolina banned public employee collective bargaining and remains one of only two states — Virginia being the other — to deny public sector workers negotiating powers. If Mission nurses vote to unionize, they would be joining National Nurses United (NNU), the nation’s largest nurses’ union.

HCA Healthcare isn’t only under scrutiny in North Carolina. The Service Employees International Union in Florida recently launched a campaign against HCA – claiming that HCA is failing to provide enough personal protective equipment for staff and continues to threaten layoffs. Nurses at 15 HCA hospitals represented by National Nurses United protested in Texas in June, saying the for-profit hospital chain threatened layoffs. In California, striking nurses in Riverside, California protested for weeks in a struggle against the HCA Healthcare subsidiary Riverside Community Hospital (RCH) amid rising anger over unsafe conditions and understaffing. Similar campaigns were launched in Nevada, Kansas, and Missouri as well.

HCA is the wealthiest hospital system in the U.S. It reported $1.1 billion in profits in the 2nd Quarter of 2020, which is a 38 percent increase from the same period in 2019. HCA also received $1.4 billion from the CARES pandemic Act as well as an additional $300 million since June 30. As one of the world’s wealthiest hospital chains, HCA earned more than $7 billion in profits over the last two years and currently has a worth of $36 billion. In 2019, HCA’s Chief Executive Samuel Hazen was paid $26 million. Hazen volunteered to donate two months of his salary to help fund HCA workers during the pandemic – which totals $237,000 or just under one percent of his salary.

Unions across the country are calling on HCA to use the CARES Act funding rather than float the possibility of layoffs.

Mission Hospital released a statement in response to a request for comment regarding their support of nurses’ right to unionize while condemning the union they are considering joining.

“We are pleased that our registered nurses now have the opportunity to vote on this important decision,” said Mission Hospital. “Over the course of the past five months, we have seen NNU bring unnecessary conflict and divisiveness to our hospital. We believe quality care is best served when our patient care team works collaboratively together. With that said, we respect and will protect the right of nurses to determine for themselves whether or not they want union representation, and will encourage all to take part in the election.”

The vote to unionize specifically relates to the 1,600 nurses employed at Mission Hospital in Asheville, meaning the nurses at Angel Medical Center or other HCA affiliates are excluded, however, local employees are hoping that the decision in Asheville will have lingering benefits for nurses across the region.

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