Safe staffing concerns soar among Minnesota nurses

Abbott Northwestern nurses Angela Becchetti (L) and Becky Nelson talk about the impact of shortstaffing on patient care in their hospital.

The Minnesota Nurses Association released data today showing the number of reported staffing concerns from its members doubled from 2020 to 2021, prompting union members who joined a Capitol press conference to plead for action from lawmakers and hospital administrators.

“Each one of these represents multiple incidents and multiple patients who are not getting the care they deserve,” MNA President Mary Turner said, pointing to a stack of 7,857 paper reports submitted by union nurses in 2021. “And why is this? Because our hospitals continue to treat us like we’re factory workers and our patients are on an assembly line.”

The new report compiles and analyzes reports submitted last year by MNA members concerned that short staffing may have negatively impacted patient care during their shift. The reports documented 9,381 cases in which understaffing delayed nurses’ ability to administer medication, complete a patient assignment, answer patient call lights or otherwise deliver care.

In over 80% of those cases, managers failed to respond to the concerns adequately, according to the report.

MNA has been collecting reports of unsafe staffing for over 25 years, and cases have increased 300% since 2014.

The staffing crisis reached a tipping point during the COVID-19 pandemic, as nurses like Jean Forman walked away from the profession. The former Abbott Northwestern nurse cited persistent frustrations over staffing, which weighed on her mental health.

“Hospital executives have watched reports of unsafe staffing increase and have done nothing to solve the crisis,” Forman said. “It is time for action, before more nurses reach the same conclusion I did, that they can no longer care for patients the way they were trained and called to do.”

MNA President Mary Turner, pictured with concern-for-safe-staffing forms collected by the union, is an ICU nurse at North Memorial hospital.

The statewide nurses union is pushing for action on two fronts: at the bargaining table and at the Capitol.

Legislation passed by the DFL-controlled House would set a hard cap on the number of patients under any hospital nurse’s charge, require hospitals to be more transparent and give nurses a say in unit-specific staffing limits in their hospitals, whether or not they are unionized.

The Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act would also direct funds to recruit and retain nurses, including $5 million for student loan forgiveness, and it would fund new mental health programs for hospital staff.

The bill has not been heard in the Senate, but MNA members are holding out hope for its prospects in end-of-session negotiations and Gov. Tim Walz this month.

Becky Nelson, chair of the MNA’s Government Affairs Commission and a nurse at Abbot Northwestern, credited an “incredible outpouring of energy” from nurses this legislative session for getting the bill passed in the House.

“From new nurses just months or years out of school to those who have been in this career for decades, we all recognize that the current staffing practices in our health care system are not sustainable,” Nelson said.

Nurses also continue to push for staffing language in their collective bargaining agreements, something MNA has been fighting to win “as long as I’ve been a nurse,” Abbott Northwestern RN Angela Becchetti said.

“Executives use phrases like ‘lean,’ ‘just-in-time staffing’ or ‘benchmarking,’” she said. “But the outcome is always the same: asking fewer nurses to care for more patients with less resources and support.”

Nurses in the Twin Cities area and Duluth are currently in contract bargaining with their employers. The talks cover about 15,000 union members.

Twin Cities nurses’ contracts are set to expire May 31, but union leaders said an extension was likely.

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