WILLMAR -- Registered nurses at Rice Memorial Hospital wore red T-shirts and held handmade signs in a show of solidarity this morning as mediation got under way between hospital management and the nurses' bargaining unit.
The 220 RNs represented by the local unit of the Minnesota Nurses Association have been working without a contract since the beginning of the year.
At issue are concessions that have been proposed for the nurses' health insurance, paid time off and sick leave.
The nurses said that if benefits are weakened, it may cause nurses to leave and make it harder for Rice Hospital to be competitive in hiring new nurses.
"It's about keeping the nurses we have," said Carolyn Jorgenson, a member of the negotiating team for the RNs.
The rally this morning, which was joined by representatives of the hospital's two AFSCME locals, was planned as a show of support, she said. "It's just to show administration that we do have the backing of all of our union."
Spokespersons for both the registered nurses and hospital management say they're hopeful they'll make progress at today's mediation session.
"We are very willing to negotiate," said Ronna Roelofs, co-chair of the nurses' bargaining committee.
Dale Hustedt, chief administrative officer for Rice Hospital, said management hopes to strike a balance between a fair settlement for the nurses and preserving the hospital's financial viability.
"We want to do what's right for our people and we want to do what's right for Rice," he said.
Today's mediation session, which began around 9 a.m., could last the entire day.
"We never go into it without hoping to make progress," Hustedt said.
Some nurses came in on their day off to join the rally. Others were just getting off the night shift and stayed to don a T-shirt or pin. By 8:45 a.m., the hall in the lower level of the Lakeland Health Center was lined with more than two dozen nurses, several of them accompanied by their preschool-aged children. One child held a sign that read "I support my mommy!"
Jan Rabbers, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Nurses Association office in St. Paul, said the economy and the financial pressures on hospitals are making the labor climate in the health care industry especially difficult.
"It's not just around the state. It's around the nation," she said.
RNs in Willmar "are pushed to the wall right now" and benefit takebacks could be the tipping point that causes nurses to begin leaving, Rabbers said. "They wouldn't be here today if they weren't concerned."
Twin Cities hospitals narrowly averted a strike last summer when contract talks broke down with registered nurses. Striking will not be an option for nurses who work at Rice Memorial Hospital. Because the hospital is owned by the city of Willmar, the employees are considered essential.