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'We are pushed to our max': Minnesota nurse explains her decision to strike

Emily Allen has worked in some of the state's busiest COVID units, but says stress and burnout have been compounded in new ways this year.

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. — Emily Allen, an ICU nurse for M Health Fairview, has seen the devastating toll that COVID-19 took on countless Minnesota patients, but this year she's begun to realize the full impact of the toll the pandemic has also had on herself and her coworkers.

"People are so, so burned out," Allen said, during an interview at her home on Tuesday, just hours after she and a supermajority of nurses like her voted to authorize a strike.

In the early days of the pandemic, Allen says she felt called to join a special COVID ICU inside Bethesda Hospital and care for some of the critical patients in the state. Later, when Fairview closed Bethesda, she transferred to another COVID ICU inside St. Joe's Hospital in time to see the worst of the delta variant in Minnesota. 

Last year, she moved back into a more traditional ICU at St. John's Hospital in Maplewood, and while the COVID case numbers have improved significantly, Allen says the stress has not.

She says she felt a different kind of stress stemming from an emergency room at critical capacity.

Emily Allen: "It feels pretty similar. Our emergency room is at critical capacity and it's the same thing where we can't get beds clean fast enough. There's patients in the hallways, there's patients with critical needs, ICU patients as well, that are down there for several days because we don't have a bed to take care of them." 

Kent Erdahl: "You're an ICU nurse." 

Allen: "I am." 

Erdahl: "But you're seeing patients in the ER?"

Allen: "Yes. Whole hospital units can be floated to the ER to take care of ER patients that are waiting for rooms on the actual floors." 

Kent: "Why do you think you're at this point that you are right now?" 

Allen: "It's a combination of, there's not enough beds for these people and we're really short staffed as well. I think a big part of it is because of the pandemic. It took a lot out of us as nurses. The stuff that you would see every day is things that I can't really erase from my memory, and so by the time the pandemic was over, to go jump back into another fire of constant admissions, constant surgeries and sick people, I think it's really pushed a lot of people away from picking up extra shifts. Even nurses that I know who have completely gone away from the bedside period." 

Emily says she and her fellow nurses have voted to strike out of concern that more nurses will leave, further compounding the issue and stress. She says they are pushing for M Health Fairview to increase retention and hiring efforts, and believe it will take a bigger wage increase than the 12% spread over three years that Fairview has proposed. 

"That's the biggest one that's hardest for us because we look at our CEO, who is making $3.5 million per year and they're not even willing to barely cover cost of living wages for us," she said.

A Fairview spokesperson pushed back on that CEO pay number, which has also been used by the Minnesota Nurses Association, saying the $3.5 million figure is from 2019, and has been cut by more than 20% during the pandemic. 

Emily says she also voted to strike in hopes of improving safety, for both patients and nurses themselves. At St. John's Hospital, that includes pushing for more staff parking lot patrols and emergency call buttons, while also adding a police presence inside. 

Allen: "We're asking for a police officer in the emergency room because people are getting assaulted down there. We just had a physician that was assaulted a few weeks ago." 

Erdahl: "What do you want people to know about this strike vote? Why you voted?"

Allen: "This isn't about a wage increase for us. It's really about taking care of people's safety. The patients are at risk every single day. I mean, what if that was your family member? Would you want them sitting in an ER for 36 hours? We don't want to not work or go on strike, but we are pushed to our max here and something has got to be done to change it."

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