With signs and fervor, Duluth nurses picket Essentia, St. Luke's

2019-08-21 | Duluth News-Tribune

Aug. 21-- Aug. 21--Hundreds of nurses and their supporters took to Duluth sidewalks on Tuesday, drawing attention to disputes over ongoing contract negotiations.

The informational picketers, donning red shirts and holding signs, marched in front of Essentia Health and St. Luke's hospital on Tuesday afternoon to raise awareness of their issues with current contract negotiations. The Minnesota Nurses Association organized the two demonstrations and supplied shirts and signs for nurses who joined in before the start or after the end of their shifts.

While both Duluth-based health systems are going through separate contract negotiations, nurses have similar issues they seek to address in new contracts: to increase staff levels and retention rates. Many people picketing said low staffing levels impact patient care, and high turnover often results from more experienced nurses leaving hospitals.

They chose to picket because it's the best way to inform the public, said Brittani Buchanan, who was picketing at Essentia and works in its pediatrics unit.

"We're one of the two hospitals in town. So if you don't come to us, where do you go?" Buchanan said.

"You're not going to get good care if there's not good nursing," said fellow picketer Erin Sather, who also works in pediatrics at Essentia.

Contracts for Essentia and St. Luke's nurses ran out on June 30, but their terms are still in effect until new ones are approved.

Earlier this summer, MNA held another public event when its members showed up to a Duluth City Council meeting. They raised concerns that important issues -- like staffing levels -- were not being addressed in negotiations.

Essentia said in a statement its hospitals were open and accessible as usual on Tuesday.

"We value the contributions of our skilled and compassionate nurses and respect their right to conduct informational picketing as part of the contract negotiation process," the statement read.

At the Essentia picket, organizer Mark Privratsky said its nurses want to keep their current vacation time and insurance, increase resources to make the workplace safer and see reimbursements for student loans, among other things.

"Nurses just don't think they should have to choose between being safe at work and keeping ... insurance that they've earned," he said.

Pete Boyechko, co-chair of the nurses negotiation team and a St. Luke's home health care nurse, said he hopes administration comes back to the negotiating table after the picket.

"Every one of our proposals that we presented to management is directly to address a concern -- a collective concern, so not an individual concern -- a collective concern of our nurses here," Boyechko said.

They reached a point where pickets were necessary to drive the negotiation forward, he said. "I would imagine ... it's going to bring some attention to the hospital," he said. "I just hope that people will come to the table."

In a statement, Sue Hamel, St. Luke's vice president and chief nursing officer, said the health care system respects nurse's rights to hold informational pickets and appreciates staff members who reported for their shifts.

"We have been making solid progress at the negotiations table and look forward to continuing our discussions in the near future. We are working hard to arrive at a fair contract that recognizes nurses for their role while also keeping in mind what is in the best interests of all employees and striving to maintain affordable health care," Hamel said.

Susie Moss, a nurse in St. Luke's ICU and member of the negotiating team, said she typically takes care of two patients at a time -- a national standard. But, she said, she's had to take care of three patients at one time, which can risk patient safety.

"Our goal is that the hospital will work together with us to provide a contract that finds a solution to provide safer staffing at our hospital. Both here and down the road," she said.

Molly Jazdzewski, a nurse in St. Luke's ICU, said she's frustrated with negotiations. "We're making little progress, but not on the big issues ... like unsafe staffing," she said. "We're getting in situations where we're having to take assignments that really aren't safe for us. And because conditions are so bad, we're losing staff."

Essentia and its nurses will negotiate again on Wednesday, according to a MNA press release. St. Luke's is holding its next negotiation date on Sept. 9.