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'A bitter pill to swallow' | As state calls on traveling nurses to fill void, some bothered by wage disparities

While the nurses we spoke with say any help is appreciated, new details about the state contract are also raising a few eyebrows among frontline workers.

Allina Health has begun training what will eventually be about 40 traveling nurses to help supplement their short-staffed hospitals for the next sixty days.

"We're very grateful and we feel like the community and the state has heard us, and it helps us care for more patients,” said Carol Koeppel-Olsen, Vice President of Patient Care Services and Chief Nursing Officer at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. “Abbott Northwestern has opened almost 75 more beds in the last year that weren't previously opened and we need nurses to staff those."

Koeppel-Olsen says the omicron variant has added stress to an already dire situation, because more patients are coming in and more staff members are getting sick.

"We’ll definitely take all the help we can get,” she said. "Our staff has been amazing for the past two years. They continue to show up and deliver awesome care, all of the healthcare workers across the state. This just helps them feel heard, it helps them feel more motivated, and it gives them a little relief."

But not all health care workers see it the same way.

"It's a bitter pill to swallow,” said Mary Turner, an ICU nurse and president of the Minnesota Nurses Association.

Turner, says that bitter pill is the state's $40 Million contract, first reported by the Pioneer Press, which will pay registered nurses $275 per hour and higher, plus an additional $345 per day, per person, for food, lodging and other living expenses.

The hourly rate alone is easily five to six times the rate of most Minnesota nurses.

"I am very aware of how desperate our nurses are at the bedside, so I want to be very clear that any help that we're getting from the state and federal, or from anywhere, is appreciated,” Turner said. “That being said, I have to be honest, that my phone has been ringing off the hook today with nurses that are a little bit upset, once again, that their loyalty at our hospitals is not being acknowledged or rewarded.”

Turner says the MNA isn’t arguing for $275 an hour, and acknowledges that the jobs are temporary and critical. But she says many are struggling with the sticker shock because they are still waiting for state lawmakers to agree on a promised frontline worker bonus.

The Minnesota Hospital Association says there is little other choice. A survey found more than 1,800 open nursing positions at hospitals and healthcare systems across the state.

"It's not fun to start a shift in an ICU with only two nurses when you need seven,” Turner said. "We are desperate, but that doesn't mean that we don't want to be respected for the work that we have been doing."

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