FL HCA hospital workers say staffing shortages are leading to unsafe conditions

HCA says the criticism is union’s ‘normal tactics’ during contract negotiations

By: - May 9, 2023 3:33 pm

Roxey C. Nelson, executive vice president of 1199SEIU, speaking at a news conference in Largo on May 9, 2023. (Credit: Mitch Perry)

Staffers at hospitals run by HCA Healthcare in the Tampa Bay area spoke out on Tuesday against their employer, claiming that staffing shortages in their facilities have created unsafe conditions for patients.

The charges are serious because HCA Healthcare is the nation’s leading health care provider in the country with 184 hospitals nationwide and 46 in Florida, the most of any state.  The corporation reported revenues of more than $15 billion in just the first quarter of this year alone.

A handful of local HCA employees discussed their concerns from the parking lot of the HCA Florida Largo Hospital, located about 15 miles north of St. Petersburg in Pinellas County. It was organized by the 1199 Service Employees International Union, the bargaining unit of approximately 10,000 nurses, CNAs, technicians, dietary aides, and other health care workers in 19 HCA facilities in Florida — where they have been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.

Leora Stirrat is a certified monitor technician at HCA Florida Blake Hospital in Bradenton, where her job consists of watching patients’ heart rhythms all day long. She said that for nearly two years she worked with just one other staffer during her shift monitoring about 160 people.

Leora Stirrat has worked at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton for 46 years (photo credit: Mitch Perry)

“You’re holding their lives in your hands,” she said. “And you’re trying to get ahold of the nurse, which you can’t get ahold of. You’re trying to get ahold of the charge, you can’t get ahold of them.  You’re calling rapid responses, left and right.”

Stirrat said she feels bad criticizing her employer. “I like my job and I like my co-workers. But I feel bad for our community.”

Pat Putnam, 69, has worked at HCA Florida St. Petersburg Hospital (formerly St. Petersburg General) for 21 years. He said the staffing shortage at his facility has been exacerbated post-pandemic. “This is just not a good environment for patients. And it needs to be improved. We need to get something done about it,” he said.

Alma Hind has worked for the past nine years at HCA Florida Oak Hill Hospital in Brooksville in environmental services. She also said that conditions at her facility are not safe for patients.

“The sanitation isn’t there,” she says. “We don’t have time to mop the halls. We don’t have a floor tech. These are the things that are going on, and they’re [management] finding it okay. I don’t find it okay. I’m worried about our patient care.”

Below industry averages

The SEIU published a report in January claiming the company operates with staffing levels about 30 percent lower than national industry averages. The report alleges that the short staffing saves the corporation “billions” each year, at a cost borne by patients, and that rather than invest its workforce, HCA uses its profits “to line the pockets of investors through share buybacks.”

“The idea that this hospital, this billion-dollar corporation, is refusing to invest in workers and refusing to invest in care is disgusting,” said Roxey Nelson, the executive VP with 1199 SEIU of Florida.

A spokesperson for HCA Florida dismissed Tuesday’s press conference (similar events organized by the SEIU were scheduled in Florida Tuesday and Wednesday) as part of union’s “normal tactics during collective bargaining.”

“At HCA Florida Largo Hospital, we believe in a strong culture of respect and collaboration among our colleagues is critical to our mission. We value all members of our care teams and we provide a safe environment for our patients,” said Debra McKell, director of media relations for HCA Healthcare’s West Florida Division.

“Today’s demonstration is part of this labor union’s normal tactics during collective bargaining, which happens every three years at HCA Florida Largo Hospital. During these negotiations, our goal is the same: to secure a fair agreement that continues to support a culture of colleague safety, care excellence, and compassion. We strongly disagree with SEIU’s allegations. This union has a history of attacking and bullying hospitals with misleading information and staged events designed to garner media coverage. The labor union’s report cherry-picked the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid [CMS] cost report data that supported its narrative and simply ignored the data that did not.”

However, it’s not just the SEIU that is questioning HCA.

Legislator’s concerns

In March, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Tampa Bay area Republican U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis wrote a letter to the CEO of HCA Florida Bayonet Point Hospital in Pasco County, saying that they were reaching out “in response to troubling allegations of unsanitary and unsafe practices” at the facility, and listed eight questions that they hoped to get responses to.

The two GOP lawmakers cited an NBC News story from February as the source of their concerns. That story reported that a group of doctors had told Bayonet Point administrators that the hospital was not providing a safe environment to perform surgery, and that it was a dangerous place to practice. That story went on to report that while administrators promised to address those expressed concerns, more than a year later staff members claimed that they had not seen any significant changes.

The Phoenix reached out to both Sen. Rubio and Congressman Bilirakis’ offices to inquire whether they’d received a response from the hospital.

A spokesperson for Bilirakis told the Phoenix that “we anticipate a response from HCA in the coming weeks and we are also in the process of scheduling a sit-down meeting with the Congressman.”

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.