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RNs in midst of contract talks urge Willmar's Rice hospital to invest in its nurses

WILLMAR — Registered nurses at Rice Memorial Hospital made a show of solidarity Wednesday, showing up at a meeting of the hospital board of directors to give a statement about the progress of their union contract talks.

But the 20 nurses, most of them wearing red Minnesota Nurses Association T-shirts, did not get a chance to speak. Citing board protocol, Chairman David Anfinson told them the agenda for the meeting was already set and requests to speak before the board had to be made in advance.

The nurses gave a copy of their statement to the media afterward, however, and publicly voiced their desire for a new contract that allows the city-owned hospital to be competitive in recruiting and retaining its registered nurses.

“We think they need to invest in their nurses,” said Joe McMahon, a business agent with the Minnesota Nurses Association and one of three Minnesota Nurses Association staffers accompanying the delegation of nurses to the hospital board meeting Wednesday evening.

Rice Hospital’s 220 registered nurses have been working without a contract since Jan. 1. Talks are in mediation. One session with a mediator has already been held, and a second session is scheduled for May 1.

Carolyn Jorgenson, a Rice RN and spokeswoman for the RN bargaining unit, said the nurses had hoped to meet with the hospital board to make their presence and their concerns visible to board members.

“We just want them to know we are negotiating in good faith,” she said.

The two sides remain far apart. Health insurance and compensation are the main financial issues but Jorgenson said the nurses are especially concerned about Rice’s ability to attract and keep RNs.

Starting wages for Rice Hospital’s registered nurses lag behind those of other hospitals, she said.

The nurses said Wednesday evening that they recognize the hospital’s financial situation and the record $3 million operating loss sustained last year.

But nurses remain critical to providing the high-quality care that patients experience at Rice, Jorgenson said. “We want to keep them.”

If nurses are forced to make large concessions in order to reach a contract agreement, the hospital could “become a revolving workforce door,” the nurses said in the statement they had prepared to present to the board.

“We ask you to invest in the people who care for people who are at their most vulnerable,” their statement urged. “Keep the highly skilled registered nurses here in their own community. Do not force nurses to leave Rice Memorial because the hospital no longer offers a competitive wage and benefit package.”

With a nursing workforce whose average age is in the mid- to late 40s, there also are concerns that an upcoming wave of retirements will leave the community with a shortage of registered nurses, the RNs said.

A nurse shortage would “greatly impact the care our patients receive,” said Jorgenson. “That’s why we’re concerned.”

Contract negotiations had been moving along but the first mediation session was “very disappointing,” she said. “The offers they made were a lot less than they have given other contracts.”

Mike Schramm, chief executive of Rice Hospital, told the board of directors Wednesday that economic issues are the main area of disagreement.

“We’ve made some progress but we still have significant issues to work out,” he said.

The last contract with the Minnesota Nurses Association was settled through mediation and several previous contract agreements were arrived at through mediation as well, Schramm said.

“We hope we’ll be able to come to agreement,” he told the board.

The registered nurses said they’ll continue working to engage community support. After speaking to the Willmar City Council last month with a message similar to the one they had planned to deliver to the hospital board, they received encouragement from several members of the public, Jorgenson said. “It raised awareness.”

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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