There is safety in numbers and strength in a union. Security officers at HealthEast hospitals are organizing to achieve both.
Officers say they’ve been warning management for years about dangerously low staffing levels among their ranks. HealthEast usually keeps just two security officers on duty at each of its four East Metro hospitals – unless someone calls in sick.
Those concerns fell mostly on deaf ears, officers say, even after nurses at St. John’s Hospital, a HealthEast campus in Maplewood, were brutally assaulted last year. Frustrated, an overwhelming majority of HealthEast’s 45 officers realized organizing a union “is the most effective way to make our voice heard in the workplace,” Bethesda security officer Kyle McGinn said.
“We’ve had violent patients lash out at staff,” McGinn said. “I’ve had gunshots go off and shootings take place within a block of the hospital.
“Security officers want to be able to provide the safest environment possible for patients, families, visitors and other staff members. We feel with the current staffing levels – and the training and equipment we’re given at this moment – we’re not able to do that.”
A public campaign
McGinn and his fellow officers began organizing a union with AFSCME Council 5 earlier this year. Yesterday, backed by elected officials and supporters in the labor community, they visited Bethesda President Catherine Barr’s office to request management recognize their union and engage in a dialogue about their staffing concerns.
After waiting 20 minutes for HealthEast’s director of labor relations to arrive, Barr declined to recognize the union and refused to discuss staffing.
Officers pledged to keep fighting for recognition. But winning a union, Council 5 organizers warned, will require more public pressure on HealthEast than is typically the case during an organizing drive.
That’s because the National Labor Relations Act prohibits security officers and other “guards” from voting to join a union that already represents — or could potentially represent — other workers at the same employer. Because AFSCME Council 5’s 43,000 members statewide include health care workers (although none at Bethesda), the security guards cannot petition for a union election.
HealthEast can recognize the officers’ union voluntarily, however. That’s the approach St. Paul City Council members, Ramsey County commissioners and other elected officials urged the hospital system to take in letters delivered in advance of the officers’ request for recognition.
“These are the people responsible for caring for us,” St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune said at a press conference outside Bethesda. “We would encourage Bethesda to recognize the union and work with the employees. The City of St. Paul works with unions all the time, and it’s considered a positive. I think it will be a positive for Bethesda as well.”
Other HealthEast employees, who rely on security officers to keep them safe at work, agreed with Thune. Members of the Service Employees International Union, the Minnesota Nurses Association and Operating Engineers Local 70 supported the officers’ request.
Nursing assistants Brandon Nagel and Haley Gould stuck around the hospital after finishing the night shift to stand behind officers McGinn, Joe Misencik and Jeff Perry as they delivered the petition to management.
“We constantly have traffic coming in and out,” said Nagel, a steward with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. “With only one security officer at night, if they’re in the middle of dealing with something, we’re on our own. There are times when I would love to have backup or security (during a behavior emergency), but I’m waiting 10, 15 minutes.”
Council 5 Executive Director Eliot Seide urged officers, “Stick together, hang together and we’ll win together.”