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Nurses, hospital to revive contract talks; Sixth negotiation session set for today

BEMIDJI — For the sixth time in formal negotiations, representatives of Sanford Health Bemidji and the Minnesota Nurses Association will meet today to try to iron out a new contract.

Negotiations began in November between Sanford and the MNA, which has roughly 300 members at the facility. Despite the lack of progress, the two sides say the renegotiation process has been positive.

“We haven’t gotten a lot accomplished yet, but it hasn’t been high-tension or anything like that,” Peter Danielson, co-chairman of the MNA bargaining team, said Tuesday.

Brian Mathews, head of human resources for Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, on Wednesday described the communications that go on outside of the sessions as having a “professional and cooperative tone.”

Two issues that have surfaced are the allegedly inadequate health insurance and lack of sick time available to the Sanford nurses. Supporters of the nurses demonstrated against Sanford’s sick time policy Sunday near the Paul Bunyan and Babe statues.

Danielson said in some cases nurses could face disciplinary action if they have just more than three days of sick time over a yearlong period.

“We have policies that are in place that make nurses afraid to call in when they’re feeling ill or or their families are feeling ill,” Danielson said.

Mathews said Sanford doesn’t necessarily have a specific policy toward sick time. Rather, the hospital’s policy governs “unplanned time off,” or time off that happens after six-week staffing schedules have been posted. Schedules are posted two weeks in advance, Mathews said. Forty hours of unplanned time would result in a “verbal reminder” for the employee, he said.

“In by far the majority of cases where we’ve had to issue verbal reminders, employees’ attendance improves,” he said.

However, if the employee continues to have unplanned absences, disciplinary measures may progress to a written warning, then a “final” warning and ultimately termination, Mathews said.

Sanford also allows for leaves of absence to those nurses who need an extended time off, such as for parental or bereavement leave. In the event of a nurse taking a leave of absence for an illness, the hospital typically uses information provided by that employee’s doctor in determining whether to give the sick nurse leave, Mathews said.

“Generally, we’re relying very heavily on the doctor’s opinion in granting the leave of absence,” he said.

Mathews said Sanford’s attendance policy has been in place since August 2012, and the nurses’ union agreed to it.

“Since that time, we’ve only terminated one registered nurse for accumulation of unplanned time off,” Mathews said. “In that same period of time, we’ve issued over 70 leaves of absence to the same group of about 300 nurses.”

That statistic indicates that Sanford is “fairly liberal” in granting leaves of absence, he said.

Next meeting in April

While he complimented the tone of negotiations, Danielson did express frustration with some of Sanford’s actions.

“We had hoped that the negotiation process would have been more straightforward; then we would have been able to come to an agreement on the terms in a more reasonable time frame,” Danielson said. “We’ve seen very minute movement from management.”

In November, Mathews said Sanford was “optimistic” a new contract could be agreed upon before the old contract expired Feb. 28. On Wednesday, Mathews said they were “cautiously optimistic” they could settle on a contract by the next scheduled session in early April.

“We still feel that we’re making some adequate progress,” he said.

The last negotiations in 2011 saw six months pass after the old contract expired before a new contract was agreed upon.

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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