Unionized nurses at seven Minnesota hospitals say they’ve taken a vote of no confidence in hospital management, ratcheting up the pressure on negotiations over pay, benefits and working conditions.
“As a result of the corporate health care policies pursued by hospital executives … hospitals are understaffed, nurses are overworked, and patients are overcharged,” said Chelsea Schafter, a nurse at M Health Fairview Riverside in Minneapolis.
Nurses announced the vote of no confidence in the executives of four health systems — Fairview Health Services, Children’s Minnesota, North Memorial Health and St. Luke’s Duluth — on Tuesday outside the University of Minnesota, where leaders from M Health Fairview and Allina Health were speaking about the future of the health care industry. The nurses held a second news conference on Tuesday in Duluth outside St. Luke’s.
The nurses’ combative stance with their employers comes after two grueling years of the pandemic followed by soaring inflation, which they say has cemented their resolve to win significant wage increases and higher staffing levels even if it means going on strike.
“Thank you is not enough,” said Tricia Ryshkus, a nurse at Children’s Minneapolis. “Show us how thankful you are in the contract negotiations.”
The Minnesota Nurses Association is currently negotiating contracts covering some 15,000 nurses across 15 hospitals in the Twin Cities and Duluth and seeking as much as 37% wage increases over three years at some hospitals.
The day after their contracts expired in June, the nurses came out swinging against hospital executives with picket lines across the Twin Cities and an ad campaign targeting high pay of executives.
They pointed out that many hospital CEOs have enjoyed double digit compensation increases in recent years, while nurses’ pay hasn’t kept pace with inflation.
Fairview Health Services CEO James Hereford received $2.62 million in total compensation in 2020. While that’s 26% less than what he received the year before, his 2020 compensation was still up 40% from 2018. At Children’s Minnesota, CEO Marc Gorelick received $1.49 million in total compensation in 2020, up 50% from 2018.
Unionized nurses in Twin Cities metro hospitals, by contrast, received 2-3% annual raises over the past three years, which some nurses voluntarily gave up during the pandemic.
Several of the hospitals have offered nurses the biggest raise in 15 years, according to a spokesman for the Twin Cities Hospitals Group, which includes Children’s, North Memorial, Fairview and HealthPartners. But the hospitals say the nurses’ are seeking unrealistic gains as many hospitals face their own financial challenges from the pandemic.
“In this climate, wage increases proposed by the union between 32-37% are unrealistic, unaffordable, and unwise considering the growing affordability crisis facing patients and health care systems across the country,” said a statement shared by Paul Omodt on behalf of the Twin Cities Hospitals Group.
A spokeswoman for St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth similarly said the hospital could not afford the raises the nurses are seeking. Each hospital has a separate contract with its nurses, but hospital leaders are offering similar wage increases of 8-10% over the next three years.
The nurses’ strategy of waging an aggressive public campaign against hospital leadership is backed by a survey showing the public’s widespread contempt for hospital CEOs and widespread appreciation for nurses. In a poll conducted for the union, just 11% of respondents said they viewed hospital executives favorably while 84% said they viewed nurses favorably.
“Ask any of my patients at three in the morning who they trust the most, it’s the nurses,” said Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association and an intensive care nurse at North Memorial.
“And I certainly don’t see any of these executive health care industry people at three in the morning taking care of the patients,” she said.
One of the main concerns nurses raised is chronic understaffing in hospitals, which they say has created a downward spiral as burned-out nurses leave the profession.
Contrary to the popular assumption that the COVID-19 pandemic caused nurses to leave the bedside, a survey conducted by the union found the most common reason nurses quit was “management issues,” followed by short staffing and then the pandemic. A national survey of nurses found about half are considering leaving the field in the next year, mainly because of “unsafe staffing” levels.
Earlier this year, a shortage of nurses became so dire that the governor appropriated federal relief funds to pay a staffing agency $275 an hour or more for temporary nurses in beleaguered hospitals.
The nurses union claims there are enough registered nurses in the state, while a change in management could entice nurses back to work at a lower cost than traveling nurses. They pointed to the fact that Minnesota now has the most registered nurses in state history — 120,000 — with 14,000 new registered nurses entering in the past three years despite the pandemic.
The union hopes to win more control over staffing levels through its contracts with hospitals, after state lawmakers rejected a bill this past legislative session called the “Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act,” which would have required hospitals to implement a staffing plan approved by a committee made up of nurses and managers.
Since their contracts expired, nurses at 15 hospitals could call a strike virtually at any time. That would require thousands of nurses to be united behind such an aggressive approach.
While negotiations over the last contract were relatively quiet, in 2016, nurses at Allina went on strike for 37 daysjust a shy day of the state’s longest nursing strike in 1984.
Last month, the Minnesota Nurses Association suffered one of its most significant losses in recent memory when 500 nurses at the Mayo Clinic’s Mankato hospital dissolved their union after more than 70 years. Nurses who opposed the union cited, in part, the combative approach the union took with hospital leadership.
Asked about the recent vote, Turner said there were many nurses that were supportive of the union and blamed the outside lobbying of the National Right to Work Foundation, which provided free legal assistance to the campaign.
“All that rhetoric you’re hearing about how we’re combative, that is all their rhetoric,” Turner said. “My heart just bleeds for (the nurses) right now … because things are going to change and it’s not going to be for the better.”
The contracts the nurses are currently negotiating are at hospitals run by Allina Health, Fairview Health Services, HealthPartners, North Memorial Health, Children’s Minnesota, St. Luke’s Hospital Duluth and Essentia Duluth.