On a hot Wednesday in early July, healthcare workers gathered in the median and on the sidewalk just off the North Dallas Tollway in Farmers Branch to protest their work conditions and benefits at hospitals owned by Tenet Healthcare, but Tenet says it wants to negotiate and that the nurse groups are needlessly prolonging the strike.
California nurses were joined by nurses from the Massachusetts Nurses Association, who have been striking against Tenet for four months. All called for an investigation into Tenet’s use of COVID-19 relief funds, improved staffing, and better working conditions, delivering a 16-foot long petition to Tenet’s CEO, Ron Rittenmeyer.
They aren’t the only ones calling out Tenet for its use of COVID-19 funding. California congresswoman Kate Porter and Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Health and Human Services asking for a federal investigation, alleging that Tenet misused taxpayer dollars. The letter juxtaposed the $1 billion Tenet received in CARES Act funds with its $1.1 billion acquisition of a company with 45 surgery centers and the company’s $150 million plans to purchase 25–40 more surgery centers later this year.
“During this time, Tenet failed to provide the care its patients needed or the protections its workers required. Tenet understaffed the emergency room and intensive care unit at Detroit Medical Center’s Sinai Grace hospital so severely that single nurses were charged with treating as many as 20 COVID-19 patients at a time,” the letter reads. “The emergency room ran out of oxygen and beds and was forced to prop dead bodies upright in chairs; and dozens may have died for lack of basic attention from the overwhelmed staff.”
The letter also said that Tenet fired employees who asked for more support and failed to isolate COVID-19 patients. Tenet ended last year with $399 million in net profit and $2.5 billion in cash reserves. This was more than double its cash balance in any quarter for the past ten years, it read.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers President Sal Roselli followed with a letter to encourage a federal investigation. “There is ample evidence to suggest that Tenet Healthcare used COVID-relief funds to improperly expand its business, enrich its executives and shareholders, and prioritize the company’s bottom line over patients and caregivers,” Rosselli wrote. “An investigation is urgently needed to investigate these matters, evaluate the actions of other large health systems, and identify steps needed to recoup any misappropriated funds.”
This year, two U.S. reps from Massachusetts, Lori Trahan and James P. McGovern, joined striking nurses at Tenet-owned Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, when Tenet announced it would be hiring 50 replacement nurses to cover for the striking workers. The nurses have been striking since March 8, and the Massachusetts Nurses Association has also been calling for improved staffing ratios, NBC Boston reports.
D CEO Healthcare spoke with Jasmine Nguyen, a pharmacy technician at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, Tenet’s largest hospital in Orange County, California. She said that when more employees than normal were out due to sickness and caring for loved ones during the pandemic, the staff took on more shifts and had to cover for each other. But with so many people out, patients received medications more slowly than usual, Nguyen says.
“We were told that no matter how understaffed we are, we are not allowed to say to staff or patients that we are understaffed,” she says. “Then, we’re told to suck it up and apologize and try to deliver as fast as we can. But when you are trying to work fast, that increases the chance of errors.”
Nguyen also noted that they lacked proper PPE at the beginning of the pandemic and remembers spraying her coworkers down with disinfectant in hopes it would prevent infection. Despite the conditions, Nguyen says she enjoys the people with whom she works. She even delivered her children at Fountain Valley, and because it is her local hospital, she doesn’t want to leave. But not everyone has stuck it out like her.
“We are always understaffed, but it has been ten times worse during the pandemic,” Nguyen says. “We have big turnover because of the bad working conditions. When people find a better job, they leave.”
In a statement, Tenet Healthcare noted that Saint Vincent Hospital has remained a nationally recognized institution (8th best hospital in the state according to U.S. News and World Report) and urged the MNA to come to the negotiating table with the hospital team at Saint Vincent. Tenet presented an improved offer that includes enhanced staffing on several nursing units and maintains wage and benefits improvements. “We are working in earnest to reach an agreement, but the MNA refuses to meet with us until late in the week to discuss the improved terms of our latest offer, instead, sending part of its delegation to Dallas and needlessly prolonging the strike,” the statement reads.
Tenet says MNA hasn’t allowed the nurse members to vote on any of the proposals brought forth by Saint Vincent and says the MNA’s demands for staffing ratios are above and beyond that of any hospital in the state. Tenet’s staffing ratios are better than 74 percent of hospitals in the state, and voters turned down the ratios being asked for by MNA. Tenet denies that its federal funding was used for anything other than COVID-19 relief and noted that much of its purchasing power came from a $1.3 billion loan in 2020. Tenet has reached settlements with other unions in the state, including an agreement with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union at Saint Vincent earlier this year. “We call on the MNA to bring this strike to an end so our nurses can return to our patients and the Worcester community,” it reads.
As of yet, things have not resolved. “We are here hoping to improve our working conditions, to ask to be treated fairly, and ask for fair wages,” Nguyen said of the protest’s goals. “We are hoping they provide us with a way to properly care for our patients.”