Twin Cities nurses have until 10 p.m. tonight to cast their ballots on a new labor contract. The Minnesota nurses union expects members to ratify the tentative contract, which was reached with 14 metro hospitals last week.
The deal would preserve nurses' pension and other benefits, but it doesn't resolve their demands over staffing levels.
The nurses union was ready to walk out on strike today had it not reached the tentative agreement, and Rachel Rada could have joined the picket line instead of voting on the contract proposal.
Rada, a surgical nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul, said she was relieved to vote "yes" in favor of the contract offer. Rada, who sends money regularly to family in the Philippines, says the threat of the open-ended strike weighed on her mind.
"I was scared because I have a family to support and I need a job. I think most nurses feel that way," she said.
Rada was one of about a dozen nurses who spoke to MPR News after casting their ballots this morning in St. Paul. Many showed up shortly after sunrise, wearing scrubs or red union T-shirts.
All of them said they voted to accept the pension plan and labor contract, and were confident both proposals would be ratified.
What a difference one week can make. Last month, the 12,000 Twin Cities unionized nurses went on a one-day strike in what was believed to be the largest nurses' walkout in U.S. history. Another strike was scheduled for today. But last-minute negotiations between the hospitals and the nurse negotiators last week produced a surprise deal.
Emergency room nurse Duane Turner voted to accept the deal, and thinks the nurses should have settled with the hospitals a long time ago.
Turner, who works at United Hospital in St. Paul, took the unpopular position of crossing the picket line during the one-day strike in June, and he was planning to do it again. Turner says he was convinced by a study that says hospital death rates increase when nurses walk off the job.
"I won't live with that. I won't have that on my conscience," said Turner. "If someone comes in and needs to be treated, I'm going to be there to help. It's not that I'm a 'super nurse,' but I know where things are. I know what to do. And I'll be there for my patients."
The nurses' union had put patient care at the forefront of their fight in previous weeks, and were calling for rigid nurse-to-patient staffing ratios. But the hospitals repeatedly rejected that idea, saying it was too expensive and wouldn't improve patient safety.
That prompted nurse Sandy Lewandoski to vote against the contract offer. Lewandoski, who is an RN at St. Joseph's, says she couldn't believe her union would endorse the contract.
"I was shocked because it wasn't addressed -- the staffing issue -- and I thought that was our main concern," she said.
Lewandoski says even if the hospitals couldn't give the nurses everything, she was hoping they would budge on that.
"At least address the staffing ratio -- or at least the acuity of patients -- so we're not bombarded like we are, or at least it doesn't get worse," said Lewandoski. "I think it's something that has to happen, and everyone needs to stick together."
Other nurses weighed in on a Facebook page set up by the Minnesota nurses' union, sharing Lewandoski's disappointment in the contract.
But many more on the page supported the proposal, saying the deal -- which does include modest pay increases -- was the best the nurses could hope for. Some say their next step is to ask the state Legislature to mandate staffing ratios. An attempt to do that stalled at the Capitol this year.
Maureen Schriner, a spokeswoman for the hospitals, says it's not likely the hospitals would ever support mandated staffing levels. The hospitals are unconvinced that the required ratios would improve patient safety.
"The best we can hope for is that the Legislature focuses on the science and the best practices we have, and makes decisions that will help us improve the quality of care," she said.
Schriner says the hospitals are committed to working with the nurses on the staffing concerns through existing hospital committees.
The polls close at 10 tonight, when union members will begin counting the ballots by hand. A final tally is expected around midnight, or shortly after.
At the polling place in St. Paul, nurse Jeanne Krypel says the fight for patient care is far from over. And she says nurses are in a better position to make the case for increased staffing -- even if it's at the patient's bedside.
Many nurses have traditionally kept the staffing issues to themselves, even if it meant making patients wait for long periods of times before a nurse answered their call light, Krypel said.
"But people might be more aware and say, 'Boy, it took you a long time to answer my light. Are you short tonight?'" said Krypel. "And probably now, I will say 'yes,' if we are."