Mission Health North Tower hospital in Asheville, NC, is owned by HCA.
Mission Health North Tower in Asheville. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Frustrated by what they say are staffing shortages and unsafe conditions for both patients and employees in the midst of a pandemic, registered nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville staged a protest Wednesday morning to air their grievances and gather additional public support for their cause.

Billed as a news conference and devoid of typical labor rally trappings like a street march or a blaring bullhorn, Mission RNs gathered in solidarity in the shadow of HCA Healthcare’s main campus at 509 Biltmore Ave., where they say the number of COVID-19 patients being cared for has reached an all-time high.

Wednesday morning’s event arose, pro-union nurses say, after hospital administrators and executives at HCA Healthcare, the for-profit owner of Mission, “failed to respond to an urgent letter” in July from Mission RNs warning about “rapidly deteriorating conditions” as the coronavirus pandemic grew worse.

“This ongoing COVID surge has only increased the risk of exposure, and infection is growing as nurses are not provided the backup of additional staff to protect ourselves and our patients,” said a pre-event statement attributed to Mission RN Sue Fischer. “This has become an emergency which is not acceptable.”

In its latest update on the number of in-hospital COVID-19 patients at Mission, William Hathaway, chief medical officer at Mission Health, said the hospital has the capability to care for a growing number of such cases.

“At the beginning of July, we were averaging around 20-25 (COVID-19) patients in the hospital, and then more recently, we’re up in the low 40 range, 40-45 patients in the hospital on average at a given time,” he said.

“We still have adequate capacity from a room point of view, from an intensive care unit point of view, from a protective equipment point of view and testing supplies to handle this volume right now,” Hathaway said.

But in Tuesday’s news release announcing Wednesday’s event, RNs cited employee concerns about the hospital, alleging that hospital practices were providing insufficient protection to nurses in various units against COVID-19 and were unfriendly to anyone discussing the situation with other staff.

They also alleged that patients have not been treated with proper care at times due to staffing problems.

Union voting begins at mid-August

As RNs and union organizers prepared for today’s event, the National Labor Relations Board announced that mail ballots will be sent to registered nurses at Mission Hospital on Aug. 18 so they can decide whether to join a union.

Votes will be counted on Sept. 16 by NLRB officials in the secret-ballot election, said Bradley Van Waus, the southern regional director for National Nurses Organizing Committee, an affiliate of National Nurses United.

Unionization efforts by Mission employees, which first got underway in 2019, gathered steam heading into 2020, and in March, National Nurses United formally petitioned the federal agency for the right to unionize within HCA’s North Carolina Division.

But as the coronavirus pandemic deepened, initial hearings before the board were postponed as desired by hospital management, frustrating pro-union Mission employees and helping to fuel tensions between the parties.

National Nurses United is seeking to represent all full-time, regular part-time and per diem registered nurses employed by Mission at 509 Biltmore Ave. and 428 Biltmore Ave. in Asheville. It expects about 1,600 employees to be represented by the union if it wins the election.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence” that NLRB’s announcement of an election date fell on the same day that RNs at Mission announced a protest event, Van Waus said.

“We know that collective action works.… You can’t disregard the voices of the nurses.”

Wednesday’s event in Asheville coincides with other protests at more than 200 hospitals around the country that are also being sponsored by National Nurses United.

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Neil Cotiaux is a contributing writer for Carolina Public Press. He is based in Wilmington. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

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  1. Usually, categories tell you what is going on. Just as the letters “MD” after a name indicate the person is a medical doctor, “for-profit owner of Mission” tells you all you need to know to be able to understand the behavior of HCA/Mission. They care about profit – not the people trying to deliver healthcare, not people who need to receive healthcare. Profit. Counties and large cities used to own hospitals. I was born at Detroit General Hospital, which had a “Personnel Department”. When Regan became president, politicians in DC allowed Healthcare to become “for-profit” corporations – which have “Human Resources“ departments. “HR” is a corporate term that puts employees (people) in the same category as any other resource, like a chair or an ice pack. Yes, if healthcare workers want to be treated like persons, not resources, they need to unionize. I am an “old fogey union guy” who has watched several loved ones be slowly ground into sausage by the HR departments of for-profit healthcare systems.

  2. I want to thank you for an insightful article on the HCA RNs and their commendable efforts to unionize to not only protect themselves – staffing/scheduling – which translates critically and most importantly into ensuring patient safety!! WELL DONE!!

    Excellent article!

  3. As a retired RN and recent patient at Mission Hospital, I can testify to the strain under which the staff from all departments are working under. Unfortunately, I have had several other hospitalizations at Mision and was distressed to be a witness to the decline of what was once an excellent hospital. Notably, the meal service was horrible and my dietary needs were ignored over and over. No one came to help me with my basic ADL’s and in 5 days my linens were changed twice. I was perspiring profusely and had leaky IV’s. I had to wait up to 30 minutes to get assistance for the bathroom and had to call several times to get anyone’s attention.I went for a CAT scan and after it was done I was left in the hall for over 2 hours with no way to call for help or use the bathroom. I do not blame the staff as I could see they were working as hard and fast as they could. I never experienced these issues when I was a patient in the past.. There were other issues but these were the ones that come to mind. I support the nurses in pursing representation as HCAC is certainly not listening to them and from my professional point of view is putting the nursing staff in jeopardy from working under poor staffing conditions.