You might see nurses with ice cream at this Tacoma hospital on Juneteenth. Here’s why

If you’re driving by St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma on Wednesday, you might see nurses standing outside with ice cream and wonder what’s going on.

Nurses with the Washington State Nurses Association plan to commemorate the federal Juneteenth holiday by taking action at the hospital, 1717 S. J St., from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., according to a Monday news release. They’ll pass out free frozen treats to colleagues and urge them to support a petition that asks the hospital to add Juneteenth to their contracts as a paid holiday.

“Juneteenth has been a federal and state-recognized holiday for three years now — St. Joseph Medical Center needs to get with the times,” one nurse who signed the petition said in part, according to the news release. “It’s just the beginning of the critical antiracist work that need to be done.”

In addition to Juneteenth, the hospital does not acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Veteran’s Day or or Indigenous People’s Day, according to the news release.

The News Tribune reached out to St. Joseph Medical Center, which is part of Virginia Mason Franciscan Health (VMFH), for comment.

Toby Sutton, VMFH’s chief human resources officer, replied that the organization welcomes dialogues with employees and wants to acknowledge their concerns. While it tries to consider holiday requests, being a medical organization means caring for the community around the clock, Sutton wrote. That restricts its ability to pare down services or close.

VMFH offers employees “robust personal time off,” so they can pick which holidays they’d like to celebrate away from work, Sutton said.

“We also take the opportunity to recognize historic days like Juneteenth by learning more, openly talking about key issues that persist today and celebrating the progress that has been made,” the statement continued. “We are a proud participant of Juneteenth community events each year.”

The nurses’ petition spells out another demand: keeping the Racial Justice Task Force at St. Joseph a “nurse-centered effort,” per the Washington State Nurses Association’s news release. The nurses count the task force as a major victory stemming from their last contract, although they fear that its future is on shaky ground.

The hospital is pursuing an upper management-led corporate initiative, the state nurses association wrote. The nurses believe that an executive-run effort would be weaker than the existing task force.

“While nurses welcome all efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion, they feel bedside providers are among the ones on the frontlines of racial incidents by patients and should play a key role,” according to the news release. “They also want Virginia Mason Franciscan Health to back their stand on inclusion with action.”

Sutton replied that the nurse’s task force will stay in place through at least Oct. 31, and that the “Belonging and Unity Committee being formed is in addition to the current Task Force with the goal of hospital-wide participation.”

After the nurses gather signatures for the petition, it will be submitted to Virginia Mason Franciscan Health’s CEO, Ketul J. Patel, who also serves as the president of the hospital’s parent company.