Hospitals lining up thousands of replacement nurses

Some 12,000 Twin Cities nurses are ready to strike July 6 if they don't reach a contract agreement with area hospitals.

Both sides have a lot to lose in a strike, income being at the top of the list.

The winner, if there is one, would be the side that inflicts enough pain to make the other back down.

Replacement nurses represent the hospitals' biggest weapon. To get through the nurses one-day strike on June 10, the hospitals brought in some 2,800 replacements.

Maureen Cloutier of Florida is one of the nurses ready to come to Minnesota to replace strikers if there's an open-ended, second strike.

"I got my suitcase packed," she says. "If they call, I'm down to the airport."

Cloutier has a lot of company. As of Monday, almost 4,000 nurses held temporary permits to work in Minnesota, according to data from the Minnesota Bboard of Nursing.

About 85 percent of the temporary permits have been issued since May 1. The vast majority were issued to people outside of Minnesota. More than half of them have been issued to residents of southern states, like Cloutier.

She said some Minnesota nurses have warned her not to expect Minnesota nice.

"I've already got a nasty remark on Facebook, telling me they don't [expletive] want me up there," Cloutier said.

Cloutier has signed up with HealthSource Global Staffing, one of the firms poised to supply the 14 Twin Cities hospitals with replacement nurses.

HealthSource tells nurses they can make up to $5,300 a week in Minnesota, with free airfare and hotel rooms. The company says it plans to start flying nurses to the Twin Cites on July 3.

Cloutier has been a nurse for 32 years. Now, she works as a fill-in nurse at non-union hospitals in Florida. She said doesn't understand Minnesota's nurses complaints about allegedly inadequate staffing.

"It just blows my mind that these people think they're working too hard, that they have too many patients," she said.

She says Minnesota nurses don't appreciate how good they have it. "With the economy today, unfortunately everybody's being cut something." she said.

The union says the wages paid to replacements probably amount to only a fraction of what the the hospitals are paying the companies supplying those nurses.

Nellie Munn is a union steward and negotiator. @I think it probably costs them double what is advertised for the replacement nurses because they're bringing people in to cover in labor actions, which are not easy to recruit for," she said.

Even with the big bucks that strike-breakers can make, there might not be enough experienced nurses to substitute for veteran nurses who walk out. One University of Minnesota labor expert estimates the hospitals would need about 6,300 nurses to fully replace strikers. That's if the replacements worked 60 hours a week. And if they were available.

"Newly trained nurses, not a problem. They can have as many as they want. Experienced nurses -- we're still tough to find," said Jean Moore, director of the Center for Health Workforce Studies at SUNY Albany's School of Public Health.

"The available nurses may be less experienced nurses, while I think they can find nurses, they may not be the right fit for the jobs that they're going to be needing to fill," she said.

But the hospitals insist they can cope with a strike. "The hospitals will be open, and we will have safe patient care," said hospitals spokeswoman Maureen Schriner.

Schriner won't say what replacement nurses are costing hospitals, but she says fighting a strike is far less expensive than meeting union contract demands. She says that would be at least a $250-million-a-year hit to the hospitals.

"Any cost to a strike is dwarfed by the union proposal that would add millions and millions on an ongoing basis to hospitals' operating expenses and not improve quality of care," Schriner said.

A major credit rating agency said yesterday it's hard to see any upside for the hospitals in their confrontation with the nurses.

Moody's Investors Services says a strike would reduce patient counts and revenue, and if a walkout raises costs even 1 percent it could slash their bottom lines by 24 percent.

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