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Hospital officials disappointed with contract rejection, hope to resume talks

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Sanford Bemidji Hospital
About 230 nurses employed at Sanford Bemidji Hospital voted Thursday, July 28, 2011 to reject a contract offer from hospital management.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Management officials with Sanford Bemidji Hospital are disappointed that nurses voted overwhelmingly to reject their contract offer Thursday. The vote authorizes union negotiators representing about 230 nurses to call a strike, if necessary.

Sanford officials say they've offered a contract package that's fair, but reflective of changing economic times for the health industry. It may not give nurses everything they want, Sanford Health officials in Bemidji said, but the package compensates workers fairly.

Changes such as health insurance restructuring and phasing out nurses' pension plans are a sign of the times, said Joy Johnson, chief operating officer at Sanford.

"The economy and health care reform is having a significant impact on our industry," Johnson said.

Segments of the health care industry have struggled as they address national and state health care reforms. As example, Johnson points to the recent state budget agreement which reduced Medicaid reimbursement to hospitals by 10 percent. Since nearly a quarter of Sanford Bemidji Hospital's patients rely on Medicaid, the loss will be near $2 million dollars in the coming year.

Those sorts of political and economic influences means Johnson needs to look for ways to operate the hospital more efficiently.

Wages have not been an issue between the two sides. Sanford included in its offer the 2 percent wage increase in each of the next three years that nurses asked for. Most upsetting to some of the nurses is the deprecation of their traditional pension in favor of a 401k plan.

Moving away from traditional pensions is becoming more common, Johnson said.

"I think the kind of pension plan that we have is becoming more and more difficult to sustain for business," Johnson said.

Nurses vote
Nurses from Sanford Bemidji Hospital to cast ballots at Bemidji's Diamond Point Park, Thursday, July 18, 2011.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

When negotiations began in April, the top issue for nurses was to improve staffing levels. Hospital officials wouldn't disclose their current staff-to-patient ratio, but nurses are concerned it wasn't enough. The negotiating parties have since reached a tentative agreement to work together to ensure staffing is at safe levels.

Nurses in Bemidji have been without a contract since February. Peter Danielson is a registered nurse at Sanford and chairs the union's bargaining team. Their goal is to resume contract talks and avoid a strike.

"We're happy that the RNs have stood up and told management that they need to come back to the negotiation table and take nurses seriously and understand that they need these things to settle the contract," Danielson said.

Sanford officials said they're willing to resume negotiations, but are securing temporary staffing in preparation for a strike, just in case, Johnson said.

"We would be fully-staffed in the event that the decision is made to give us a strike notice," Johnson said. "We have every intention of continuing to operate fully, without any disruption of services."

No strike date has been set. Union negotiators will meet in the coming days to determine their next steps.