Anger over the dismissal of 85 nurses at St. Croix’s Juan F. Luis Hospital spilled onto the street Thursday as more than 100 nurses and supporters marched in protest.
The crowd formed in the parking lot of the Sunny Isle Shopping Center around 4 p.m. Protestors lined up along Centerline Road holding signs with slogans like “nurses united as one” and “patient care before profit.”
The crowd chanted “Jeff must go” at passing cars, referring to hospital Chief Executive Officer Jeff Nelson. Traffic slowed to a crawl as motorists honked their horns in support.
The layoffs targeted two categories of nurses, licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and certified nurse assistants (CNAs). Nelson said the layoffs were part of a strategy to push the hospital to a nursing model dominated by registered nurses (RNs), a type of nurse that is able to provide more services.
The hospital board has said it hopes this will transform Luis Hospital into a “magnet hospital,” one that attracts and retains more patients.
The hospital’s RNs were not touched in this round of layoffs and Nelson has indicated they may soon see a raise, but that did not stop them from joining the protest.
“This is an organization of all nurses” said Marylee Audein, an RN who works in the hospital’s emergency room and the chairperson for collective bargaining for RNs.
“There is no segregation at this point. We are a team. We need these people to help us,” she said. “They have been the backbone of what we do. We work together and you’re breaking up our team.”
Audein disagreed with Nelson’s position that the layoffs would ultimately increase the quality of care, saying that the hospital now had too few nurses.
“They making everything seem nice and rosy,” she said, referring to the hospital’s administration. “It is not nice and rosy. I have colleagues up there and they are suffering.”
After half-an-hour, the crowd of protestors marched out of the parking lot toward the hospital and took up positions on both sides of the street directly in front of the hospital’s main entrance.
A small group of police officers kept watch over the protestors from just inside the security fence. At 5 p.m. the size of the crowd began to swell as nurses ending their shifts walked directly from the hospital to join the protest line.
There was a great deal of uncertainty amongst the protestors. The layoffs came without warning, leaving the remaining nurses to question what might happen next.
Rumors and speculation circulated through the gathering. Some believed more layoffs were on the way, while others maintained that they would all soon be replaced by traveling nurses.
One thing all of the protestors seemed to agree upon was that the layoffs were handled poorly.
“The first people you let go is not those who do direct care,” Audein said. “[Nelson] runs [the hospital] like a business. We don’t think about business. We think about saving lives.”
Audein recognizes that the hospital is in economic crisis and supports the overall goal of becoming a magnet hospital, but she questions why all of the nurses had to be laid off immediately.
Nelson has promised to provide funds to help those laid off pursue RN certification, but Audein questions why these nurses could not have been retrained while still working.
“We are a small community,” Audein said, emphasizing the impact these layoffs will have on the families of the affected nurses. “These people live here and give to the community. And some of them have husbands and boyfriends who are going to be laid off at Hess. That’s a double-whammy.”
Around 5:30 p.m., the crowd mobilized again and swept through the security fence onto the hospital’s campus. The nurses shouted and blew whistles as they marched by the emergency room.
They made a lap through the parking lot and ultimately stopped at the main entrance. A handful of nurses danced and jeered in front of two security guards stationed in front of the door to the lobby.
Shortly thereafter the protestors marched back to Sunny Isle and the crowd began to break up. A few diehards kept up the protest on Centerline Road until nightfall.
The hospital’s administration did not respond to calls for comment on the demonstration Thursday night.
A second protest is scheduled for Friday. A larger march involving nurses from St. Croix and St. Thomas has been scheduled for next Saturday in Christiansted if the laid-off nurses are not returned to work.
“We may not be proactive on St. Croix, but we are reactive,” Audein said. “And we are reacting now.”