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Workers picket at Luther Haven in Montevideo, Minn.

Members of the Service Employees International Union - Health Care bargaining unit at the Luther Haven skilled nursing facility in Montevideo participate in an informational picket Thursday along Minnesota Highway 7 in front of the facility. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

MONTEVIDEO -- Carrying signs and gesturing to motorists to honk in support, health care workers at Luther Haven in Montevideo conducted an informational picket Thursday along Minnesota Highway 7 in Montevideo in front of the 92-bed, skilled nursing facility.

From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, health care workers, all members of the Service Employees International Union-Health Care bargaining unit, used the opportunity to let the community know that contract negotiations remain unsettled and to voice their concerns about staffing levels, pay and worker retention.

"It's like a revolving door,'' said Luther Haven employee Melody Nordby, speaking of what she said is a high rate of employee turnover.

Nordby and others on the picket line said they are also concerned about staffing levels. They want to see more workers scheduled on shifts, saying they are especially concerned about staffing when someone calls in sick.

Renee Plotz, a worker at Luther Haven, said job demands and pressures have grown for health care workers in nursing homes. More elderly people are living in assisted care facilities, meaning that nursing homes are caring for populations that are older with greater health care needs.

The union and nursing home have been in negotiations over a new contract since early September, according to those on the picket line.

The union members said management has offered a three-year contract that freezes wages and removes steps in the wage structure. Steps general refer to advances in the pay scale based on seniority and/or advanced education.

SEIU-Health Care represents about 135 to 140 of the 180 full-time employees at the nursing home, according to information from the workers and nursing home.

The picket is part of a "We Care'' campaign launched earlier by the workers to engage the community in discussions about the issues. Some 50 to 75 workers participated in the informational picket during the two-hour period, according to Nordby.

Luther Haven administrator Jim Flaherty said he could not comment on specifics of the negotiations, but said he expected negotiations to continue in the "same positive and productive spirit'' as in the past 23 years. Workers at the facility have been part of the SEIU Health Care bargaining unit for that time.

Flaherty said staffing levels, employee retention and recruitment are also issues that Luther Haven takes seriously and wants to address in a new contract.

The administrator said Luther Haven believes it has offered a fair and competitive contract. He pointed out that nursing homes face economic challenges. The state of Minnesota has frozen reimbursement rates since 2009, and Medicare rates have decreased by more than 11 percent as of Oct. 1.

Reduced reimbursements and cuts in funding by the state represented a $70,000 revenue loss to Luther Haven this year, according to Flaherty.

The union members said negotiations are headed to mediation next week.

Flaherty emphasized that despite the contract disagreement, residents will continue to receive quality care.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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