Minnesota nurse kicked in abdomen in 31st week of pregnancy
Nurses at Hennepin County Medical Center hold an informational picket outside the hospital in downtown Minneapolis on Monday. | Kerem Yücel/MPR News

MINNEAPOLIS–Union nurses from the Minnesota Nurses Association and 15 hospitals from the Twin Cities and Duluth held an informational picket line in front of Hennepin Healthcare on Monday after they overwhelmingly voted on August 15 to authorize a strike.

Nurses are demanding that hospital CEOs put Patients Before Profits and implement safe levels of staffing, solutions to nurse retention and workplace violence, and wage increases that reflect inflation and the escalating cost of living.

If the 15,000 nurses are forced to strike, it would be the largest such walkout in Minnesota in years.

MNA recently released a survey detailing the dangerous levels of workplace violence to which nurses are routinely subjected. Ninety-seven percent of nurses serving patients within the Hennepin Healthcare hospital system reported witnessing workplace violence, with the vast majority indicating the two major risk factors are severe understaffing and lack of response to harassment and violence by hospital management.

Veronika Schulz, a nurse who works in the medical intensive care unit and a member of the negotiating team, described how one of her co-workers “was kicked in the abdomen on the job while thirty-one weeks pregnant which resulted in a placental abruption”–a serious complication during pregnancy in which the placenta detaches from the uterus–and bedrest for the remainder of her pregnancy.

Schulz also detailed how in July a co-worker suffered a head injury from an assault on the job and couldn’t get an appointment to be seen for necessary medical treatment at the same hospital until September. Schulz is concerned that “there is no remedy being proposed to address workplace violence.”

Minnesota hospitals are also experiencing a crisis in retaining nurses due to chronic understaffing. “We are bleeding nurses from the healthcare system and we’re not able to replace them,” says Jeremy Olson-Ehlert, a medical ICU nurse and member of the negotiating team who was also present at Monday’s picket line.

MNA has been campaigning for safe staffing and highlighting how the greed of the hospital executives and the corporate health insurers that they answer to are reasons bosses resist safe staffing.

“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 a recent public awareness campaign, MNA emphasized “Minnesota is facing a health care crisis of unprecedented proportions. And it’s not COVID. It’s greed.”

Olson-Ehlert explained that being overworked and understaffed have forced nurses to take assignments that are unsafe. He also described how hospital executives were “guilt-tripping nurses and trapping them” by forbidding nurses to refuse hazardous assignments.

This, Olson-Ehlert notes, adds to the already enormous amounts of stress placed on nurses during the pandemic and contributes to the problem of retention. Schulz concurred with her co-worker. “I worked a 16-hour shift on Tuesday. We are burnt out from COVID and people are leaving left and right,” she said.

The nurses’ contract expired in June, affecting workers at North Memorial, Allina, Children’s Minnesota, St. Luke’s, Fairview, Health Partners, and Essentia. Despite these seven hospital systems being registered as nonprofit organizations, nurses have repeatedly exposed how their CEOs are acting as profit-seeking, greedy operators. “Hospital CEOs seem more concerned with making money than making us healthy,” says the Minnesota Nurses Association.

While refusing nurses wage increases that keep up with inflation and the heightened cost of living, the CEOs of the hospital systems in the Twin Cities and Duluth received substantial raises on their million-dollar salaries. CEO of Fairview Hospital System James Hereford earned annual compensation of $3.5 million, while the pay ratio between him and the average registered nurse skyrocketed 40 to 1.

Mary Turner, MNA union president and an ICU nurse at North Memorial Hospital, said these same CEOs have “created a crisis of retention and care in our healthcare system, as more nurses are leaving the bedside, putting quality care at risk.”

Minnesota nurses have a history of labor struggles. In 2016, Allina nurses went on strike for 37 days in what turned out to be the second longest nursing strike in state history. The longest nursing strike in the state was in 1984 and lasted just a day longer.

In other parts of the Midwest, nurses are also mobilizing. In neighboring Wisconsin, UW Health nurses just authorized a three-day strike in September, citing a “dangerous crisis of understaffing.” This all comes as a new national survey exposes the large numbers of nurses across the country who are considering leaving the profession.

Despite their abysmal working conditions, Minnesota nurses reported feeling inspired by community support. On August 18, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously voted to approve a resolution that appealed to hospital management to “prioritize patients and frontline healthcare workers, including nurses, over profits.”

Showing up on the picket line in solidarity were representatives from 12 local labor unions, patients, families, Attorney General Keith Ellison, and community supporters with pets. Notable was Tupeck Shakur, Schulz’s union rooster who participated on the picket line with a sign directed at the hospital CEOs that read Too Chicken to Make Meaningful Change.

On Monday, nurses on the negotiating team noted hospital management hasn’t held a negotiating meeting since July 18. They are hoping the hospital executives will bargain in good faith, reach a fair contract, and not force nurses to strike. As Schulz shared from the picket line, “I have never considered leaving but it’s gotten to the point where it’s almost unsustainable.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Rebecca Pera
Rebecca Pera

Rebecca Pera is a former Twin Cities-area teacher.

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