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Rice Hospital, nurses reach tentative agreement

Joyce Elkjer, front center, and Dale Hustedt, members of Rice Hospital management, walk to a mediation meeting Friday as nurses gather to show solidarity. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

WILLMAR -- Registered nurses at Rice Memorial Hospital wore red T-shirts and held handmade signs in a show of solidarity Friday morning as mediation got under way between hospital management and the nurses' bargaining unit.

After an intense day of negotiations, a tentative agreement was reached late Friday. The union will vote Feb. 10 on whether to accept the new contract.

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 were concessions that were proposed for the nurses' health insurance, paid time off and sick leave.

Nurses were concerned that reduced benefits could 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 RN negotiating team.

Friday's rally, which was joined by representatives of the hospital's two American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 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."

Spokesmen for both the registered nurses and hospital management said at the start of the mediation session that they were hopeful they would make progress.

"We are very willing to negotiate," said Ronna Roelofs, co-chair of the nurses' bargaining committee.

The RNs did not ask for large pay increases, she said. "The No. 1 priority is our patient care."

Three bargaining sessions took place before hospital management requested mediation.

Dale Hustedt, chief administrative officer for Rice Hospital, said management's goal has been to achieve 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.

It's not the first time Rice had sought mediation to settle the contract with the registered nurses. "This is part of the process that we go through," Hustedt said.

This time around, however, labor talks were more difficult. Although Rice has posted a profit the past few years, the return is small and the hospital has been losing money on its operations. Belt-tightening has included eliminating positions through attrition and having staff stay home on low-census days. Industrywide, hospitals are bracing for further cuts in reimbursement.

The challenge for hospital officials is to make decisions that will preserve the hospital's long-term viability, said Wendy Ulferts, chief nursing officer.

"This is not about how much we respect our staff," she said. "They do an excellent job."

Some nurses who joined the rally Friday morning came in on their day off. 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!"

Other nurses carried hand-written signs that said "Support MNA Nurses" and "We don't want any takebacks!"

Altogether, 45 to 50 RNs came to the rally. Some wore red sweaters or red scrubs, the same color as the Minnesota Nurses Association T-shirts.

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."

Studies indicate that for each nurse lost from a hospital, it can take the equivalent of up to a year's salary to recruit, hire and train a replacement, she said. "That's very costly."

Twin Cities hospitals narrowly averted a strike last summer when contract talks broke down with registered nurses. Striking is not 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 and cannot go on strike.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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