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Union nurses demand say in hospital staffing levels

MNA says requests for "safe staffing" aren't about getting an exact number added to contracts, but rather, that nurses have a say in staffing level decisions.

MINNEAPOLIS — A main message throughout the three-day nurses strike has been that hospitals are extremely short-staffed and that staffing increases are needed in order to recruit and retain nurses. The Minnesota Nurses Association says 51 percent of nurses statewide are expected to "leave the bedside" within the next year unless changes are made.

"We've lost a ton of nurses and we're going to lose more," Children's Minnesota nurse Doreen McIntyre said in a press conference outside Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis Tuesday. "At Children's alone, almost 500 nurses have left."

"There are plenty of licensed nurses in the state of Minnesota to fill the vacant positions in Minnesota hospitals but they are not going to come back until conditions improve," Abbott Northwestern nurse Kelley Anaas added. "Give them a reason to return to the bedside. Give the rest of us a reason to stay."

Yet the union says it isn't asking hospitals to include a specific percentage increase of nurses in contracts. Rather, it's asking for contract language that would include nurses when staffing-level decisions are made.

"The contracts would not establish levels, but would include nurses in setting and reviewing those levels, to give them input so staffing levels can improve," Sam Fettig, senior external communications specialist explained over e-mail.

Fellow Children's nurse Trisha Ochsner says the request isn't new.

"They promised to involve the bedside RNs in the decision-making process moving forward," Ochsner said. "They have yet to be true to their word."

MNA says nurses often work shifts that are short staffed and sometimes "only a few" nurses are scheduled at a time. For an individual nurse, that can mean double the workload in one shift or working extended hours, such as doing a double shift. MNA president Mary Turner says she often cares for three patients at a time while working in the ICU at North Memorial Health in Robbinsdale.

The 15 hospitals at the center of this strike are in separate contract negotiations with MNA but Turner says, when it comes to staffing, the request of giving nurses a say in staffing levels is the same for all hospitals.

"We need better say over our grids," Abbott Northwestern nurse Angela Bechetti said. "Minnesota hospitals better come back to the table with a staffing proposal."

Twin Cities Hospitals Group responded to KARE 11's inquiry about giving nurses a voice in staffing level decisions, writing:

"Currently, staffing decisions are generally done with the involvement and consultation of the care teams. This includes management nurses, charge nurses (many who are MNA members), and other members of the care team. Keep in mind, when a patient is in the hospital, they are cared for by a team of people -- doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, dietary staff, technicians, etc. so there are many people who are involved in care. So currently, charge nurses are part of the decision tree -- these are for the most part MNA members.

We believe staffing decisions are best made as close to the bedside as possible -- and certainly within the walls of the hospital. The MNA's proposal -- the one they put across the table just recently -- focused on their ability to discipline nurses and administrators -- including their own members -- who disagree with their opinion on staffing. We have told them we are not interested in any system that involves discipline procedures based on different opinions on staffing. We remain focused on providing the best care for our patients."

Wednesday, as nurses gathered for the final day of the strike outside M Health Fairview Southdale Hospital, Turner responded to the claim that some nurses already have a say in staffing levels.

"We wanted to put an arbitrator in the contract and they said, 'No.' They kept saying that. 'Why would we have somebody who doesn't know anything about health care?' You know, like if we came up with a difference of opinion on what we – they were going to do for staffing, and they said, 'Categorically, no.' And so what I alluded to at the beginning is, we want that if they're going to change the grid or the staffing — like on my floor like in the ICU — make me all of a sudden take three patients instead of one or two, they gotta convince 51 percent of the nurses on the floor by vote that this will be OK. And, I'm sorry, I'll say it again: If you can't convince half your nurses that the change that you're going to make on the floor is an OK change, you better not be making it. But they see that as, and quote, 'We will never let the nurses have a say in the staffing grids.' They were just blatantly saying, 'We will never.' So these committees that you're talking about — and we have the same ones at North and they do here at Fairview — they don't mean anything anymore. They don't mean anything anymore. They have said, 'We have learned to get by with less during the pandemic,' and I think that's the way they intend to go."

"The hospital ultimately has veto power over it, too," Methodist Hospital nurse Jeff Bluem added. "I work as charge nurse and so we have grids and we're supposed to have a certain number of patients per nurse … They'll come up to us and say, 'We know you're understaffed already, but why can't you take more patients? What are you doing right now that you can't take one more patient than what you're taking?' So they have the final say in this. Even if we do come to a consensus and say, 'This is what we want to do,' they don't have the nurses to do it and they're pressuring us to take more and more patients."

United nurses return to work Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. The rest are expected to return Thursday at 7 a.m. MNA says no negotiations are scheduled in the coming days.

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