Nurses to picket three hospitals to protest thin ranks, pension cutsby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota nurses are planning to picket outside of three metro-area hospitals Thursday afternoon to demand that hospitals increase the number of nurses they have on staff to care for patients. They also will voice their displeasure over proposed cuts to their pension plan.
More than 12,000 Twin Cities-area nurses are negotiating a new three-year labor agreement with 13 hospitals. Negotiations began six weeks ago and both sides report little progress. Nurses will vote May 19 on whether to ratify a new contract or authorize a strike.
The potential strike reminds Cindy Olson of 26 years ago, when she was among 6,000 Minnesota nurses who walked off the job for more than a month --- the largest nurses' strike in U.S. history.
At the time, Olson had a 9-month-old child and another on the way. She had to take out a loan to pay her bills. It's an experience she would rather not repeat.
"I pray every night that there's not a strike, that we can come to a settlement," said Olson, of Shoreview. "I really do. We'll struggle if there's a strike here. We will."
Yet Olson is willing to walk off the job, if nurses can't reach an agreement with Twin Cities hospitals over staffing issues, wages and benefits.
She's a member of a bargaining unit that represents 1,100 registered nurses who work at three HealthEast hospitals. Olson said the nurses' top priority is increasing staffing because they believe patient safety is at risk.
"I can have patients say, 'Well, I've been waiting to get my pain medicine' or 'I had to wait for someone to answer my call light.'" Olson said. "And it's hard. You try to do the best you can do, but you can only stretch yourself so far."
Twin Cities Hospitals officials deny that patient care has been compromised by nursing cuts.
"Anytime I hear some of this emotional drama I say, 'What are the facts? What is real?' " said Trish Dougherty, a spokeswoman for Twin Cities Hospitals.
Dougherty said Twin Cities Hospitals have some of the best patient outcomes in the nation. She said the nurses' demands are unreasonable, costly and come at a time when hospitals are hurting financially.
"They're wanting to staff each unit, all the time at 115 percent, which means you could have one or two or three patients and you'd still be staffed for a full unit," Dougherty said.
Seeking more flexibility from nurses, the hospitals have proposed contract changes that would allow them to float nurses from one unit to another as needed. They also want to increase the number of days that they can cancel a nurse's shift from three to 15 days per year.
Olson said that would force some nurses to use up all of their vacation days to cover their lost income.
"When I go into a job, I make a commitment that I will be there for you," she said. "I expect that commitment from them also, because I have a family to support to. So in reality, they don't want to give that commitment to me."
Nurses are also opposed to a plan that would cut their retirement benefits. Olson said hospitals want to reduce nurses' pension contributions by as much as a third.
Dougherty, the Twin Cities Hospitals spokeswoman, said the down stock market has made it very difficult to fully fund the nurses defined-benefit pension program. She said the hospitals had to put $44 million into the pension plan last year, and this year $87 million.
Both sides have very sound arguments, said Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
"The hospitals are victims and they're caught in a very difficult position," Chaison said. "On the one hand, they're expected to do everything, and on the other hand, they're expected to do everything cheaply. And they are under tremendous pressure to cut costs."
For nurses, the cost-cutting proposals are an attack on their profession, Chaison said. A strike is a way to demonstrate their value.
"They think of it as a way to save the profession and to gain respect for the profession," he said. "And they see that the ultimate person who gains by this is the patient."
Twin Cities Hospitals say they hope to avoid a strike. But if nurses do walk off the job, the hospitals will bring in thousands of replacement nurses from throughout the region and from other states.
Minnesota nurses say they want to avoid a strike, too. But they have been told by their union to prepare for the possibility of being out of work for a month or two.
- Morning Edition, 05/06/2010, 7:36 a.m.