UCHealth nurses say hospital still short-staffed; hospital says union trying to “expand their business” – The Denver Post

Nurses at UCHealth rallied Friday over what they said is a continuing pattern of understaffing and intimidation of employees considering joining a union.

A group of UCHealth nurses announced they were forming a union over staffing concerns in December. Denver Health employees had said they would unionize about seven months earlier.

Staff at both Denver-area hospitals are considered quasi-public employees, so Colorado law doesn’t allow them to hold an election to force their employers to recognize a union. That means they don’t have a legal right to force bargaining, and have to rely on public pressure.

Two UCHealth nurses spoke to The Denver Post on Friday on condition of anonymity, because they feared retribution from hospital administration.

The first, an intensive care nurse, said they were short-staffed before the pandemic, and the fall in COVID-19 hospitalizations hasn’t solved the issue. If anything, the problem may be a bit worse, but nurses, lab technicians and support staff have kept leaving for higher pay or less-stressful environments, she said.

“Food trays don’t arrive on time… because the kitchen is understaffed,” she said. “No unit in the hospital is well-staffed right now.”

The second nurse, who works in the COVID-19 intensive care unit, said a lack of respiratory therapists has become a problem. In an intensive care unit, respiratory therapists monitor patients on ventilators and make adjustments to keep oxygen flowing to the body, while trying to limit damage to the lungs from excessive air pressure. At least one respiratory therapist should be assigned to the intensive-care unit at all times, she said, but at times they’ve had to do without when the therapist had to handle an emergency elsewhere in the hospital.

“They have been working mandatory overtime for a year” and are burning out and leaving, she said.

Den Weaver, a spokesman for UCHealth, said the network’s hospitals hired travel nurses and redeployed staff to the most-affected units during the spring and fall surges. The system regularly is near the top of nationwide quality rankings, he said.

“UCHealth’s staffing levels, which are similar to or better than most hospitals’ staffing ratios, help support our employees’ focus on caring for patients,” he said. “We are proud of the high-quality care that our staff and physicians provide.”

The nurses who agreed to be interviewed said managers at UCHealth have tried to intimidate employees to keep them from joining the union. In some cases, management has suggested those who join could lose their pensions, which has slowed recruiting, they said.

Weaver described the effort to unionize UCHealth employees as an attempt by the Communication Workers of America to “expand their business.” Employees have expressed concerns that a union could affect their pensions and other benefits, he said.

“In response to our employees’ questions, we have shared that during the collective bargaining process between other hospitals and unions, these types of benefits have been up for negotiation,” he said.

Friday’s rally was meant to send a signal that the employees “not going away” and will continue to organize, the first nurse said.

“We feel like with this union, we are finally starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

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