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Bemidji nurses to conduct informational picket

Frustrated by Sanford Bemidji Medical Center's refusal to meet in a timely fashion and fearing for the safety of their patients and each other, nurses delivered a formal 10-day informational picketing notice Friday to hospital officials.

While not wanting to rush directly into a strike, Peter Danielson, RN, chair of the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) bargaining team, said nurses can no longer stand idly by as they watch their patients and co-workers continue to suffer.

The picketing is scheduled to occur outside the hospital from 3-5 p.m. Aug. 17, during the midst of Sanford's "Gala Week," a six-day celebration of the corporation's "plans to raise the bar for fiscal year 2012 and beyond," according to its website.

"Apparently, Sanford Health is too busy celebrating the expansion of its growing corporate empire to resolve legitimate and significant concerns about the safety of its patients and nurses," Danielson said. "I can tell you, right now, the environment I'm working in is oftentimes not safe for our patients and our nurses. Such a large part of these contract negotiations has been aimed at remedying these unsafe staffing situations. It boggles your mind to see that while Sanford has time for a weeklong, corporate extravaganza to talk about its financial goals, it doesn't have time to negotiate a contract that has a direct impact on the safety and well-being of its patients."

He said nurses hope that conducting an informational picket during "Gala Week" will show the public where Sanford Bemidji's priorities appear to lie when it comes to addressing patient and nurse safety inside the hospital.

Despite recent and well-publicized statements from its marketing director and chief operations officer stating Sanford Bemidji continues to "be open to further negotiations" and is "always willing to negotiate - always," hospital officials recently told a federal mediator the hospital won't come back to the bargaining table any earlier than Sept. 7, 2011.

The current contract between the hospital and 230 nurses represented by MNA expired Feb. 28, 2011, and negotiations have been ongoing since early April. Nurses voted overwhelmingly July 28 to reject Sanford's "final" contract offer, instead authorizing bargaining team leaders to call for a strike.

"Our nurses would love nothing better than to reach an agreement with management that is both fair to nurses and puts patient safety - in writing - as its top priority," Danielson said. "The hospital has forced us into this position by refusing to honor either of those requests for the past several months. And now they expect us - and, more importantly, their patients - to continue operating in an unsafe staffing environment for at least another month because they're too busy hosting corporate events and outlining their fiscal goals?"

Sanford Health employs 18,000 workers across eight different states, recently bought the Bemidji hospital - previously known as North Country Regional Hospital - and is negotiating its first contract with members of the Minnesota Nurses Association.

Major sticking points in the talks have included safe staffing levels and the ability for nurses to have what they feel are adequate resources available for patient care at the bedside, according to Danielson. Other issues include hospital management's demand for major concessions from nurses regarding their healthcare and pension plans, a move that would make it extremely difficult for the hospital to recruit and retain qualified nurses.