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Sanford Bemidji Medical Center: Nurses reject contract, authorize strike

Registered nurses employed by Sanford Bemidji Medical Center overwhelmingly voted Thursday to reject a contract offer from hospital management. The vote authorizes a strike.

"Our nurses spoke decisively today on behalf of our patients and our profession," said Peter Danielson, RN, chair of the Minnesota Nurses Association's bargaining team, which represents 230 RNs at the hospital.

"While progress has been made during these negotiations regarding safe staffing language, it's not enough for corporate executives to say 'Trust us, we'll improve staffing,' and then leave it at that," Danielson said in a press release. "We need a commitment, in writing, from these hospital executives. We also cannot accept a concession-laden contract that cripples our ability to recruit and retain the type of top-notch, professional nurses the people of this community deserve."

Sanford Bemidji sent a press release late Thursday night stating that the hospital has been and will continue to be open to further negotiations, and would remain fully operational during the negotiation process.

The press release stated that Sanford Bemidji has already reached a written tentative agreement with the nurses on staffing, and that it constantly reviews staffing and scheduling. Sanford Bemidji said it follows best-practice nurse staffing guidelines set by professional nursing organizations.

Nurses voted Thursday in several sessions between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. in the main building at Diamond Point Park.

The vote authorizes the bargaining team to call a strike if needed. Federal labor laws require that the hospital receive a 10-day notice prior to the strike date, which would be set by the bargaining team.

Registered nurses Johanna Clay and Judi Engebretson told the Pioneer after the vote that they don't necessarily favor a strike, but they want a fair contract.

"I just feel more negotiation needs to be done," said Clay, who works in the obstetrics department. "We really weren't asking for anything extra (from what nurses had with North Country Regional Hospital) - just to keep things the same."

"I don't think that anyone wants to go on strike," said Engebretson, who works in the acute rehab unit. "It just may come to that if they're not willing to negotiate."

Engebretson has worked at the hospital for 22 years. Clay will have worked there for 19 years next month.

"Our nurses would love nothing better than to reach an agreement with management that is both fair to nurses and put patient safety - in writing - as its top priority," Danielson said in the press release. "The hospital has forced us into this position by refusing to honor either of those requests for the past several months."

According to Danielson, sticking points in the negotiation include safe staffing levels and the ability for nurses to have what they believe to be adequate resources for care for patients at their bedsides. Other issues include hospital management's demand for major concessions from nurses in relation to their health care and pension plans. These concessions would make recruitment and retention of nurses difficult, Danielson said.

Nurses and hospital management have been negotiating since April. The nurses' current agreement with Sanford Bemidji Medical Center expired Thursday.

Sanford Health is headquartered in Fargo, N.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D.

Sanford merged with North Country Regional Hospital in February. The acquisition, along with Sanford Bemidji Clinic (the former MeritCare Bemidji Clinic) formed Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota.

Founded in 1905, the Minnesota Nurses Association has represented Bemidji nurses for more than 30 years and represents more than 20,000 nurses in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.