The union representing about 20,000 Minnesota nurses on Tuesday announced new legislation that it says would address inadequate staffing levels at hospitals.
The legislation, called the 2012 Staffing For Patient Safety Act, would require hospitals to have staffing plans that would abide by rules specifying maximum patient assignments for Registered Nurses. The bill would also require administrators to work with nurses on staffing resources and aims to make the staffing process transparent.
The Minnesota Nurses Association said inadequate staffing can compromise patient safety. Staffing ratios were a main sticking point during contract negotiations with the hospitals in 2010 and led to a one-day strike.
Ratios weren't included in the subsequent contract agreement, but the two sides agreed to discuss the issue further. Minnesota Nurses Association President Linda Hamilton says since then, the nurses still haven't reached consensus with the hospitals on safe staffing levels.
"Because of that, we are now taking this fight to the Legislature," she said during a news conference Tuesday, flanked by a couple dozen nurses wearing red union scarves. "We've been absolutely clear that this fight is not going to end until we have safe staffing in the hospitals for you."
Hamilton said problems related to staffing levels have gotten worse since the strike.
"It's scary," she said. "This affects people's lives."
Hamilton said staffing will likely again be an issue when the nurses' current contract expires in 2013.
The bill was to be introduced this week by Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker. Both said they are trying to get hearings for the bill despite the shortened legislative session, and Howes said he plans to speak with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton about the issue on Wednesday.
The group representing Minnesota hospitals says it opposes the legislation.
Lawrence Massa, president of the Minnesota Hospital Association, said hospital nurse staffing isn't simple enough to place ratios into law.
"We don't think it solves the problem," he said. "Staffing is a very fluid situation in a hospital setting where the needs of patients change over time, the availability of staff changes over time due to a variety of circumstances that play out."
Massa said hospitals have worked hard to ensure staffing levels are adequate.
"Our members take patient safety very, very seriously and go to great efforts to try to match the needs of the patient with the staffing that's available, day by day, shift by shift, hour by hour," he said.
If the legislation advances, a University of Minnesota labor relations expert said there could be risks for both the hospitals and the nurses.
"If it becomes a public policy dictate, then the parties lose control of it. It's not something they can change through private negotiations through collective bargaining," said Aaron Sojourner, an economist who researches labor relations at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.
On the other hand, if the legislation doesn't go anywhere, Sojourner said the nurses are still working toward their goal of raising their staffing concerns in public.
"The issue's not going away, whether the law gets passed," he said. "If it doesn't get adopted, this will be an issue again in the next round of negotiations."