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A decision by BluePearl Pet Hospital, an emergency and specialist-referral practice, to indefinitely suspend emergency services in North Seattle effective this week has sparked angst among area residents and in the veterinary community.
Pet owners are fretting about where to go for care, while practitioners fear the closure is symptomatic of a nationwide shortage of emergency veterinarians and support staff that could precede more service disruptions.
Union officials and at least one former hospital employee aired additional concerns that the service cuts might be related to owner Mars Inc.'s perceived resistance to organized labor. Support staff at the North Seattle hospital recently unionized.
Mars is the world's largest owner of veterinary practices; BluePearl, one of several Mars-owned hospital chains, has more than 100 U.S. practices.
To date, the hospital website offers no reason for the suspension, but management sent an email on June 19 to area veterinarians, citing staff shortages as an impetus for the "temporary" shutdown of services. The email, a copy of which was obtained by the VIN News Service, reads:
"Many hospitals have experienced significant staffing challenges in recent months, and we are no exception. There are a number of reasons for the shortage of veterinary staff, although the stress imposed by and during the pandemic has been a contributing factor.
"We have determined that due to lack of technician coverage, we will not be able to support emergency care at this time, and our focus will be supporting our specialty patients."
The hospital said it hoped the suspension of emergency service would not be permanent.
Some pet owners in North Seattle learned about the change via social networking sites Nextdoor and Facebook, where BluePearl support staff posted personal messages.
One post came from Mollyrose Dumm, who worked as an intensive care coordinator at the hospital until Wednesday. She wrote on Nextdoor on June 19, four days earlier, that she was outraged by an apparent lack of notice about the suspension. "There has been minimal communication about this from the company, which is appalling and I wanted to make sure you all knew so [you] could plan accordingly — especially with the Fourth of July coming up," Dumm wrote. "I work for this hospital so am a reliable source, this is not gossip," she added. "I'm sorry that you'll have to go farther in a time of need for your pet family."
In a statement provided to VIN News by BluePearl media relations, the company expressed regret about the suspension and acknowledged that "four other BluePearl hospitals have suspended emergency services, while some others are experiencing intermittent service interruptions."
The statement continues, "This is not uncommon in the industry, as hospitals grapple with the shortage of qualified staff."
The company said it intends to place the vast majority of displaced associates into other roles at the North Seattle hospital or other nearby BluePearl locations.
Turmoil amid union negotiations
Dumm learned about the suspension of emergency services and the likely end to her position two weeks ago during negotiations on a union contract for support staff.
In May 2018, veterinary technicians, assistants, maintenance personnel and customer service representatives at the North Seattle hospital voted to join the National Veterinary Professionals Union (NVPU).
On the bargaining committee since the beginning, Dumm worked at BluePearl North Seattle for more than seven years.
She said she's witnessed firsthand the staffing crunch at the hospital and that it affects all levels, from veterinarians and veterinary technicians to other support staff. She describes it as an industry-wide challenge made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year, VIN News interviewed 11 emergency veterinary practitioners (several of them owners), representatives of two large hospital chains, and two recruiters. They characterized the personnel shortage as "serious," "urgent" and "a crisis."
Dumm believes the challenge of attracting and retaining support staff, in particular, at the North Seattle hospital has been exacerbated by its management's approach to the union.
"While we've been negotiating, which is three years now, they have not given a single raise or cost-of-living adjustment or bonus for working in the pandemic," she said, adding that working conditions have declined as the hospital absorbed an increased number of referrals from general practice clinics.
Dumm said she was offered another position at the hospital performing different tasks and supporting different specialists, on a completely different schedule, which she couldn't make work. She hopes to stay in veterinary medicine and is already interviewing but would like "to get as far away from corporate medicine as possible."
Asked about speculation that BluePearl will close the location, she said, "Without an actual return-to-service date … I find it hard to believe that they're not going to end up shutting down the whole thing." She explained that without emergency services funneling patients to the hospital's internal medicine team and other specialists, the facility will lose some of its lifeblood.
Veterinary union president Liz Hughston, a registered veterinary technician, said Mars has been a tough negotiating partner and that freezing wages was part of its strategy.
"During contract negotiations at the North Seattle location, BluePearl was assiduous about making sure they [union members] knew they weren't getting anything that other practices were getting," Hughston said. Support staff at nearby BluePearl hospitals received increases and bonuses, and everyone knew it, she said. As a result, union members were frustrated and demoralized, and some support staff left for practices where wages were higher.
BluePearl said it does not try to deter bargaining.
"We have bargained in good faith, and the union has never claimed otherwise," according to the company statement. "We have met more than three dozen times, on dates that were mutually agreed upon, and we have reached signed agreement on most items. However, collective bargaining is a process, and it takes time, especially when the parties are negotiating a first contract. The process will continue, and we are scheduled to meet with the union five times before the end of August."
When Hughston heard about the suspension of emergency services at the North Seattle hospital, she said her first thought was that Mars was trying to "strangle the union," either by demoralizing staff to the point that they would lose confidence in contract negotiations, or as a way to force a crisis that would necessitate closing the North Seattle location and with it, the young union.
Such speculation is spreading through social media posts that ascribe the suspension to a union-busting effort.
Still, Hughston believes Mars' labor stance is only part of the picture. Through social media, she's heard about emergency-service suspensions, service interruptions and patient diversion from employees at other Mars-owned hospitals in Northern California, Florida, Georgia, Oregon and Washington.
"In a way, that's more concerning to me," she said. While she believes that many — maybe most — ERs are understaffed right now, the fact that the largest veterinary hospital company in the world is showing signs it cannot attract and retain veterinarians, veterinary technicians and assistants raises serious questions.
Update: BluePearl North Seattle is closing, according to company spokesperson Laura Fourniotis. In an emailed statement, she said that continued staff departures at the emergency and specialty care hospital had led to the decision. She gave no closing date, but said the company was in the process of finalizing wind-down operations.