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Health, Science, Environment

SLU Hospital Nurses Union Ratifies Contract That Allows Nurses To Weigh In On Staffing

Members of the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United union protest what they refer to as unsafe staffing levels at St. Louis University Hospital in Midtown on Sep. 9.
Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United union protest what they refer to as unsafe staffing levels at St. Louis University Hospital in Midtown on Sep. 9.

Nurses at SSM St. Louis University Hospital have reached a contract agreement with management that raises their pay and ensures they have a say in staffing levels.

SSM Health and the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United, which represents the more than 600 nurses at the hospital, ratified the contract late last week. The agreement ends a six-month dispute over the contract.

“We won language that affirms our rights as our patients’ advocates in the facility and which allows us to speak up,” said union nurse Sarah DeWilde, who works in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

A provision in the 42-month contract establishes quarterly meetings between nurses and hospital officials to discuss staffing levels and safety concerns. Nurses have asked for security guards in the emergency department.

The nurses have been without a contract since June.

“Both sides of the table really worked hard to get a contract that was fair and supports the work that’s done at SLU Hospital,” said Jennifer Garnica, the interim chief nursing officer at the hospital. “I think everyone’s relieved we can move forward.”

The contract also includes a median 19% pay raise over the next three and a half years. Three-fourths of union members will see an increase between 15% and 19%, Allen said.

In St. Louis, where hospitals are competing for a limited number of workers, that’s important, she said.

“We have thousands of hospital beds between St. Louis and St. Louis County,” Allen said. “In order to recruit and retain nurses, you have to have an economic package that’s attractive and one that makes nurses want to stay where they are.”

During protests over the summer, nurses complained that there weren't enough workers on duty during shifts, which put patients and nurses at risk.

Nurses and other support staff bear the brunt of worker shortages, said Kellie Allen, a union nurse who sat on the bargaining committee. Their voice should be heard when deciding how many people work.

“We also have the ability by doing that to say over this period of time, these things were going on in the unit, and we need to increase those numbers in the staffing plan,” she said.

State lawmakers recently repealed a requirement that hospital management consult with nurses before changing staffing rules and patients’ rights, Allen said. That’s why it was important to get those provisions included in the contract.

Since SSM took over the hospital in 2015, management has included nurses in those conversations and will continue to listen, Garnica said.

“Staffing is not necessarily about a black-and-white number,” she said. “It's about critical thinking; it's about a conversation; it's about looking at what's happening at that moment in time.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Petit_Smudge

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