WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Union nurses held signs and rallied for community support outside Ascension Via Christi St. Francis Hospital Thursday morning. St. Francis and St. Joseph nurses are in the middle of contract negotiations with Ascension and are asking for better staffing and more security measures.

Nurses rally outside Ascension Via Christi St. Francis on Aug. 31, 2023. (KSN Photo)

“We want more nurses. We want retention of our nurses as well as recruitment of our nurses, and, yes, we need more security for our safety and our patients’ safety,” Shelly Rader, an Ascension Via Christi registered nurse, said.

RNs at St. Francis voted to unionize last November. The St. Joseph RNs joined in March. They belong to the National Nurses Organizing Committee, an affiliate of National Nurses United.

Contract negotiations between the nurses’ union and Ascension began in February. Rader said there have been some small steps toward progress, but more needs to happen.

“We need to make bigger steps,” she said. “Ascension could have this contract completed tomorrow, and that would be the best thing for our community. That would be the best thing for our patients. We still have staffing that is not up to par.”

When negotiations began, Ascension said it would be “a lengthy process.”

Bloomberg Law researched how long it takes employers to negotiate a first contract with newly unionized employees. With the records it could find, Bloomberg Law said the average is 409 days. Health care contracts usually take longer — closer to 500 days.

The nurses say they are concerned about patient safety and staff safety. In June, three patients at St. Francis were sexually assaulted. A man was arrested. Police say he got into the hospital after midnight by following a worker through a door.

Nurses rally outside Ascension Via Christi St. Francis on Aug. 31, 2023. (KSN Photo)

Rader said Ascension has made some changes since then, but not enough.

“I can tell you that at both hospitals, there are doors that are still unlocked and unsecured,” she said. “I work in the ER here, and there’s an ER door that people walk through all the time, and I have seen visitors walking in right behind staff that does not work in the ER. I don’t know how safe that is.”

“The nurses have put forward simple solutions, such as fixing broken doors that do not lock and staffing entry points with appropriate personnel who can screen visitors,” Laura Day, St. Francis RN, said in a news release. “While administrators say they will act on these proposals, these simple steps have not been implemented. The hospital has a moral obligation to keep staff and patients safe, but they are failing to do the bare minimum.”

Wichita nurses also claim Ascension is unduly surveilling nurses through artificial intelligence software. The union says it has led to investigations against nurses and unjust disciplining.

“Nurses must have the ability to use their clinical judgment and expertise at the bedside,” Courtney Callum, St. Joseph RN, said. “Computer software does not take into account the human experience of the actual patient. Nurses should not be judged by an artificial intelligence system based on big data, but rather on their expertise at the bedside.”

Rader was asked about staffing shortages. She gave the example of “maybe one nurse taking care of two ICU patients, two med-surg patients and an ER patient. That is inappropriate.”

Nurses rally outside Ascension Via Christi St. Francis on Aug. 31, 2023. (KSN Photo)

“Once this contract is completed, that will give us the tools to have safe staffing for our patients, which will provide better care for our patients,” she said.

Rader hopes the Ascension administration is getting the message.

“I really hope that they see, look out that window and see all of us nurses, nurses standing in solidarity,” she said.

KSN News contacted Ascension Via Christi about the nurses’ concerns and Thursday’s rally.

We continue to bargain in good faith with National Nurses United to come to a mutually beneficial agreement on an initial contract for the associates they represent at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis.

“We respect our associates’ right to organize themselves through union representation and participate, or not participate, in union activities.

“We believe that differences are best resolved at the bargaining table, and continue to focus on our upcoming September bargaining sessions with NNU.”

Ascension Via Christi