Strike tests Twin Cities nurses, patients

  • Article by: JOSEPHINE MARCOTTY and CHEN MAY YEE , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: June 10, 2010 - 7:06 AM

Replacement nurses sympathize but question if strike is right way

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Tarloh Quiwonkpa, an emergency room nurse at United Hospital in St. Paul, listened to one of the speakers at a vigil by strike supporters Wednesday evening at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in St. Paul. The 24-hour strike is set to start at 7 a.m. today.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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On Thursday morning, the two Florida nurses will report for work at the emergency room, just as they've been doing for years.

Except this time they'll be doing it far from home and for a lot more money.

They are among the 2,800 replacements recruited from around the country to substitute for 12,000 Minnesota nurses who are expected to walk off the job Thursday morning at 14 Twin City hospitals.

"This was my bright idea," said Kristie, a redhead from West Palm Beach. "It's a great opportunity to make a lot of money."

The two declined to give their surnames and admitted to mixed feelings about the assignment. What will bother her the most, Nancy said, is the moment when she walks into a Twin Cities hospital and takes the handoff from a Minnesota nurse.

"As soon as she comes off the night shift,'' Nancy said, "she's going to go out and hold a [picket] sign."

The 24-hour strike scheduled for 7 a.m. Thursday, over staffing, pay and benefits, is set to go down as the biggest in U.S. nursing history. Hospitals not involved in the dispute have geared up for an influx of patients, and many of the affected hospitals have postponed medical procedures, beefed up security and asked other employees to take extra shifts. They say emergency rooms and labor-and-delivery departments will be fully staffed.

But the hospitals have been forced to pay a price for that preparation -- flying in thousands of nurses to work for just one day.

On Wednesday night, the two friends from Florida, each with 10 years' nursing experience, were sitting in the bar of the Bloomington hotel that served as a processing center for the temporary nurses. It was a scene of organized chaos -- the main hallway lined with registration tables for each hospital and the ballroom packed with more tables and signs. Some nurses wandered about, pulling their luggage. Others sat against the walls with computers and cell phones plugged into outlets.

Many of them, including Nancy and Kristie, were wearing colored wristbands identifying the hospital where they will work Thursday.

Kristie heard about Healthsource Global, a strike staffing firm based in California, from a friend. For a day's work, they would get travel, food and hotel expenses plus a paycheck for $1,600 to $1,800 -- about what they make in a week, they said. Some nurses were getting up to $2,200, they said.

Healthsource's website says it pays $1,600 for the Minnesota strike. The company declined to comment.

The replacement nurses say they sympathize with the union's goal -- better staffing ratios -- and understand the striking nurses' frustrations.

"We're nurses," Nancy said. "I do support what they're doing."

At the Florida hospital where the two friends work, one ER nurse might take care of up to nine patients. Things can get hairy. "You take care of the sickest first and do the best you can," Kristie said.

Nancy, a blond, bespectacled mother of four, said she supported the striking nurses but questioned the effectiveness of a strike.

"I feel there should be safe patient ratios," she said. "I just don't think a strike will work. People need to write to their senators and their congressmen and get legislation."

To make the trip, Nancy recruited her mother to watch her four kids. Kristie put her dog in day care.

Four hours of orientation

Both nurses said they've been assigned to work the emergency room on Thursday, which is their specialty. Other nurses said they, too, were assigned to work where they had experience.

They also said they would get four hours of orientation from their assigned hospitals on Wednesday so they would be familiar with new settings and procedures.

The pair said they're slightly worried about the reception from striking nurses, but not too much.

"They're college-educated people," Nancy said. "I don't think they're going to get nasty or violent."

Twin Cities nurses, who say they are striking mainly for better nurse-to-patient ratios that would improve patient care, have kept their eyes peeled for these replacements, whom they call "scabs," reporting sightings on their union's Facebook page.

Some replacements say they are helping the strikers by caring for patients in their absence. Local nurses don't buy it. History has shown that employers cave in faster when there aren't replacements, said Jean Ross, a co-president of National Nurses United, a new national union with which the Minnesota Nurses Association is affiliated. "They enable the employer," she said.

At the next table, a neonatal intensive care nurse named Betty said she decided to come partly because her own hospital in Alabama had cut her hours starting two years ago.

A nurse for nine years, she typically works weekends. The Twin Cities assignment just happened to fall in between her regular workdays. Betty's rationale for crossing the picket line is simple: "In order for them to get what they need from the hospital, they can't just abandon the patients."

Another nurse at her table, who did not want to be identified, said she quit her job in Kentucky to take this one. She wasn't told how long she'd be in Minnesota and didn't know it would be a one-day strike. In April she worked as a replacement nurse for 22 days at a strike at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia.

Between stints of paperwork and orientation, some of the visiting nurses managed to squeeze in some sightseeing.

Nancy, for example, went gift-shopping for her kids at the Mall of America. Her 16-year-old daughter is getting an "I Love Minnesota" tank top.

marcotty@startribune.com mychen@startribune.com

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