Picketing nurses say job cuts raise safety issueThe informational picket in front of St. Mary's Medical Center was held to draw attention to what the union considers inadequate staffing levels.
By: Steve Kuchera, Duluth News Tribune
Several hundred nurses and their supporters held an informational picket Monday in front of St. Mary’s Medical Center.
The union representing about 1,300 nurses at SMDC Health System and St. Luke’s hospital called the picket to draw attention to what it believes are inadequate staffing levels.
“I’ve never seen staffing levels as bad at SMDC as now,” said Bettye Shogren, a registered nurse who’s been a labor relations specialist with the Minnesota Nurses Association since 1984. “It’s awful. There’s not enough nurses to do the work that needs to be done.”
The union posted a chart on the Minnesota Nurses Association website showing 832 unstaffed shifts at the hospital from June 21 to July 18 in departments ranging from intensive care to the emergency department to the labor and maternity ward.
“Even if it isn’t criminal,” Shogren said of the staffing levels, “it should be.”
SMDC spokeswoman Kim Kaiser disputes the union’s claim that staffing has shrunk to unsafe levels.
“We’re confident that we do have safe staffing levels here,” she said. “We monitor staffing levels very carefully. If we need to, we might even make adjustments in the middle of a shift.”
The hospital also benchmarks against national standards, Kaiser said, but she declined to provide data as evidence.
“That level of detail is best reserved for the negotiating table,” she said.
There are no federal or state hospital nursing staffing benchmarks or requirements for hospitals to keep a certain number of nurses on duty. The closest any federal data comes to suggesting an adequate level of nursing care comes from a survey of patients by the U.S. Department of Health from October 2008 to September 2009. That showed 78 percent of patients at SMDC reported that their nurses “always” communicated well, which was slightly better than the state and national averages.
The Illinois-based Joint Commission, which does accreditation on hospitals, said in 2009 a complaint that the hospital did not have enough nursing staff was substantiated, addressed and closed. The joint commission is investigating a current complaint of inadequate staffing levels at SMDC, spokesman Ken Powers said. He said he could not provide more information.
If the hospital does have low nursing staff levels, it could severely affect quality of care, according to a 2004 study from the federal Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research.
That study found there could be an increase risk for pneumonia, shock, urinary tract infections, upper gastrointestinal bleeding, and potentially higher mortality rates.
Monday’s informational picket came a week after Twin Cities nurses ratified a new contract and avoided a strike by 12,000 union members. As with those talks, contract talks in Duluth have focused largely on staffing levels.
“I’m on vacation and I’m called every day to come in because there is not enough nurses,” SMDC registered nurse Tina Hietala said.
About 750 people were signed up to march in front of SMDC on Third Street sometime between noon and 5 p.m. Monday. Among them was heart patient Rick Fournier of Duluth.
“I wouldn’t be here today without these nurses, period,” he said. “I’m alive five more years than I should be because of nurses. I believe they should not cut staff.”
Not all of SMDC’s patients were sympathetic to the nurses’ demands. Across the street, Jon Solberg of Grand Rapids paused on his crutches to watch the picket line.
“They should be thankful for their jobs,” he said. “Jobs are scarce.”
“It all falls back on our government,” Solberg said. “Health care has been an issue for so long.”
Although the union is in talks with SMDC and St. Luke’s, it decided to only picket SMDC now.
“They (St. Luke’s) have been more willing to talk about options,” Shogren said. “If it doesn’t work out we can picket then.”
The union has a bargaining session with St. Luke’s today. The next bargaining session with SMDC is scheduled for July 20. Kaiser called five previous negotiation sessions “cordial and productive.” Shogren said talks in Duluth have been “less strained” than those in the Twin Cities were.
The nurses’ previous contract expired June 30.