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Nurses are unionizing at hospitals in Wichita. Safe staffing, workplace the goal

Courtesy photo
National Nurses United
Nurses at St. Francis rally outside of the hospital on the first day of contract negotiations.

A Wichita nurse talks about what’s behind the push for nurses unions not just in Kansas, but across the country.

As a pediatric nurse at St. Francis hospital, Katie Best says she just wants to provide the best care she can to her patients.

But with the increased daily pressures that come with the job, Best said she sometimes feels she’s not able to meet that goal.

“That's been the bottom line for nurses across the board is safe staffing,” she said, “and making sure we have the resources needed to do the best job we can every time.”

In just four months, National Nurses United has organized around 1,000 nurses at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis and St. Joseph – nearly tripling the number of nurses it represents in the state.

Best and the majority of her colleagues at St. Francis voted in November to unionize with National Nurses United.

Courtesy photo
National Nurses United
Nurses at St. Joseph celebrate after voting to unionize with National Nurses United.

Now as the union negotiates a contract for more than 650 nurses at the hospital, she says a safe workplace and adequate staffing levels are top of mind.

“It is a huge problem across the board and a chronic problem that we don't have enough nurses to take care of the patients that we have,” Best said. “And that puts our patients at risk and that puts our nurses at risk.”

Courtesy photo
National Nurses United
Madison Bhagalia is a registered nurse at Menorah Medical Center in Overland Park.

A contract could remedy that issue by establishing staff-to-patient ratios. As Overland Park nurse Madison Bhagalia puts it, that simply helps align nursing with many other service industries.

“Daycares have a minimum ratio, schools have a minimum ratio – truck drivers have a minimum number of hours that they can safely work,” she said.

Bhagalia works at Menorah Medical Center near Kansas City, where nurses have been organized for several years.

Beyond safer staffing levels and equitable pay, she said her contract protects her ability to voice concerns in the workplace. One of her first actions as a union nurse was drafting a petition about some of the issues she saw in the ICU.

“Nurses in a union can speak up unafraid of persecution,” Bhagalia said. “That’s part of our contract – we are protected in our ability to professionally present concerns to our managers.”

Katie Best is a registered nurse at St. Francis hospital in Wichita.
Daniel Caudill
Katie Best is a registered nurse at St. Francis hospital in Wichita.

Katie Best, the pediatrics nurse at St. Francis, said she thinks a favorable contract could itself draw more nurses to work at the hospital.

“Because we're gonna have union protections, we're gonna have a contract, we're gonna have good pay raises that happen on a regular basis, we're gonna have better benefits and that's all gonna be in writing.

And it's not something that the hospital can just take away whenever they choose to.”

In a statement, Ascension Via Christi said it is “disappointed” in the outcome of the vote.

“We strongly believe we can be most effective working collaboratively without union representation,” the statement reads. “We respect the voting process and are committed to ensuring it is followed during the vote certification period.”

As for National Nurses United, the biggest union of registered nurses in the country, it says its recent growth makes it more able to advocate for laws that would benefit union and non-union nurses alike.

The union is currently lobbying for a federal law to establish safe staffing ratios for nurses. Advocates point to California, which mandates about four patients for every one nurse, and half that for nurses in the ICU.

Best said she hopes the union drives at St. Francis and St. Joseph will lead to more nurses unionizing in Kansas, ultimately increasing their ability to advocate for statewide change.

“I think that having our hospital unionized will help other nurses see that it's possible. I know it's sometimes scary to think about unionizing in Kansas and scary to think about organizing at your facility,” Best said.

“But nobody [at St. Francis] lost their job over union activities. So by our hospital organizing, I think that can help inspire others to do that as well.”

Daniel Caudill reports on Kansas state government for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. He was a general assignment reporter for KMUW and a reporter, photographer and digital content manager for The Derby Informer and an editor and reporter for The Sunflower. In the spring of 2020, Daniel helped cover the legislative session in Topeka as an intern for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @CaudillKMUW.