Sie Zacharias noted some of her coworkers couldn’t take 15 minutes off to join in last Wednesday’s picket because not enough staff was scheduled to cover them.

That’s the irony, said the EvergreenHealth Monroe SEIU Healthcare 1199NW bargaining team member. She and more than 100 of her peers — about half of the hospital employees in the union — had signed up to participate in the informational protest against low wages and highlight the need for more help.

Dozens of demonstrators took turns pacing the sidewalk in front of the EvergreenHealth Monore on 179th Avenue Southeast on Aug. 29. They waved signs that read “Safe staffing saves lives,” “Push out babies, not staff,” and “Caution: Patients at risk.”

EvergreenHealth responded to the Monitor’s questions with a prepared statement. The union’s right to picket is respected, and quality care was maintained throughout the event, according to the statement.

“When union members choose to participate in picketing, they are doing so on their personal time, so it does not impact our ability to deliver exceptional care to our patients and the community,” according to the statement.

Zacharias has worked at the medical center since 1999. Now she works as a nurse in the emergency department. This is the first time she has seen staff take action. She emphasized the event wasn’t a strike.

The Gold Bar resident said administrators need to raise compensation so that EvergreenHealth Monroe is competitive with other facilities in the region. They can’t retain hires. All departments are experiencing this crisis, she said. 

New graduates are trained in Monroe, then quickly move on to another site, Zacharias said, where they will make more money and receive better healthcare. Elena Swanger has worked at the hospital for nearly a decade, and is also on the bargaining team this year.

She said this is the first time she has seen staffing levels so low. Employees have to decide whether they can feed patients at times. Mistakes are common. She has had some of the worst shifts of her career recently.

“They make it impossible to properly care for a patient, to give them what they deserve,” she said.

During the picket, staff brought up their willingness to take pay cuts when the hospital was still Valley General Hospital and struggling financially. EvergreenHealth acquired the hospital, which became part of the Kirkland-based system’s about three years ago.

“The hospital also placed on the ballot a proposal for an increase in its maintenance and operations levy,” according to EvergreenHealth. “In April 2013, the voters of the Snohomish County Public Hospital District No. 1 approved a $2.7 million increase in the hospital’s annual operating levy.”

Staff doesn’t feel they have received support they were promised for their sacrifices; that the levy revenue doesn’t seem to have made an impact.

“I don’t think anything has changed,” Swanger said.

Monroe native Renée Jensen took over as chief administrative officer at EvergreenHealth Monroe a year and a half ago. Part of her strategic plan was to strengthen the hospital’s finances. She said then that she wasn’t sure the facility would have survived had the Kirkland-based organization not absorbed the local site.

EvergreenHealth reports it is hoped an agreement will be reached soon. Its team continues to negotiate in good faith with the union, according to the statement.

“We have presented many proposals, including guaranteed wage increases and new benefits, along with creative solutions for providing additional wage increases once the hospital reaches basic revenue goals for the year, among many other offers,” according to the statement.

Zacharias said she feels the hospital’s bargaining team has moved very little since talks began last October. They were supposed to have finalized contracts by last November, but have a year to work under the current contract while they negotiate. The union’s contracts are reviewed on a three-year cycle, she said.

Swanger and Zacharias said they love the hospital. They have stayed for so many years, largely because of their coworkers, who are dedicated to what they do. They consider themselves a part of the community, and said they want to see it cared for.

The two women agreed it’s time to have an honest conversation with the public — they aren’t talking to administration.

“I think there is a lot they don’t know about the hospital,” Zacharias said. “I think it’s time for a discussion.”

Members from other local unions offered their support during the picket. International Fire Fighters Association Local 2781 secretary Ray Sayah and Monroe Correctional Complex Sgt. Michael Boe of the Local 117 Teamsters said the hospital plays a vital role in the health of the community.

“I applaud you guys, and your firefighters stand with you,” Sayah said.

EvergreenHealth states the hospital is committed to accountability, to the community, its patients and employees. Needs will continue to be listened to and staff will “work together to ensure our hospital remains our region’s trusted source for the safest, highest quality care and service,” according to the statement.

EvergreenHealth serves nearly one million residents in King and Snohomish counties. Monroe’s medical center is an accredited, full-service, 74-bed public hospital district, established in 1960. About 400 employees are on staff.