Duluth nurses set one-day picket over pay, staffing levels

DULUTH — Twin Ports nurses announced they will picket this month amid contract negotiations with the area’s two biggest health systems.

More than 100 nurses for Essentia Health and St. Luke’s, clad in matching red face masks and Minnesota Nursing Association (MNA) shirts, gathered in downtown Duluth Thursday to announce a June 21 informational picket.

Staff shortages, pandemic burnout and patient and worker safety were all cited as reasons nurses were leaving in droves, and why better working conditions were sought.

“It’s just been chaos since the pandemic,” said Shawna Johnson, a nurse on an orthopedics and urology floor for Essentia Health’s St. Mary’s Medical Center. “We work with extreme numbers of patients per staff … and our ability to provide the correct amount of care is being stretched thin.”

Contracts for about 2,500 nurses for St. Luke’s and Essentia expire June 30. They seek “fair compensation for sacrifices made during the pandemic and for the rising cost of living,” said Chris Rubesch, an MNA leader and Essentia nurse.

He said the number of registered nursing licenses in the state has grown by 14,000 in the last 3 years, but a recent state report showed an increase in nurses choosing other work.

“We are not in a nursing shortage; we are in a shortage of nurses willing to work in these conditions,” Rubesch said.

Essentia Health released a statement Thursday that called its nurses “valued members of our care teams,” but it was “focusing on our discussions at the bargaining table because that is where solutions are found. Essentia will continue to negotiate in good faith and we look.” forward to reaching a mutually beneficial agreement.”

St. Luke’s said it was “disappointed that in the midst of good faith negotiations, the Minnesota Nurses Association has chosen to take this approach.”

Its statement said that while it works on an “equitable agreement” with nurses, “we will be educating the communities we serve on the value we place in and the support we provide to our patients, staff and communities.”

The union’s contract proposals include stronger recruitment and retention pieces, such as incentives and loan repayment programs for nurses.

Understaffing was an issue long before the pandemic, nurses said, and since the onset of COVID-19, hospital patients arrive sicker and often with multiple health problems that require more care. Dangerous patients are another growing issue that takes time to handle, said St. Mary’s nurse Sherrie Beyer. She shared a story of three nurses and three security guards recently spending an hour with a drug-addicted patient who insinuated he had a gun and wouldn’t surrender his narcotics.

Burnout is intense, nurses said, especially after months of exposure risk and scarce protective equipment. It’s led to departures for better-paying travel nurse roles, early retirements or some opting out of nursing entirely.

“We want to do the right thing, provide the very best care,” said Susan Peak, a cardiac nurse at St. Luke’s. “But if your work situation is poor, you will move on.”

Hospitals will continue to be staffed by nurses during the picket. Twin Cities nurses represented by the MNA are also in contract negotiations and pickedeted last week.

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