Why 15,000 nurses went on strike in Minnesota

Correction: The description for this segment has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Kelley Anaas. We regret the error.

Nurses in Minnesota organized the largest strike of private sector nurses in U.S. history this past week, with 15,000 nurses walking off the job for three days. And while the pandemic pushed many nurses to the brink, some say the burnout was years in the making. Kelley Anaas, a nurse from the Minnesota strike, and Jean Ross, president of National Nurses United, join Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Hospitals across the country are facing nursing shortages. Nurses in Minnesota this past week organize the largest strike of private sector nurses in U.S. history with 15,000 nurses walking off the job for three days. And while the pandemic pushed many nurses to the brink, some say the burnout was years in the making.

    Joining us now is Kelley Anaas, one of the nurses from the Minnesota strike and Jeanne Ross, the president of National Nurses United. It's good to have you both with us.

    And Kelley, you were out on the picket line with your fellow Minnesota nurses this past week. What were you all demanding from hospital management?

  • Kelley Anaas, ICU Nurse:

    Well, the focus of our contract campaign has largely been around the staffing that has changed in the last even three pandemic, the last few years in hospitals around the state of Minnesota and truly around the country. That has been the largest part of the focus of our strike. Also issues like paid family leave, workplace violence and protections around that and also compensation for nurses.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So Kelley, I understand that you've worked at the same hospital for some 14 years now including a stint in the ICU during the peak of COVID. What choices do you think the hospital made that contributed to this tipping point where nurses feel no other option but to hit the picket line?

  • Kelley Anaas:

    Even before COVID showed up in America, in Minnesota, our hospitals started implementing this process they referred to as benchmarking where they would compare their staffing levels to like hospitals around the country and then work to match the staffing levels.

    So in most cases, they dropped the staffing levels but doing the same amount of work taking care of the same amount of patients with the same or even higher levels of acuity.

    Then when the pandemic showed up, they staff was up we were more prepared to respond to critical patients and their ever changing levels of sickness. And we were able to take breaks and go drink water and eat and rest and kind of do those things so that we could kind of refuel and get back into the room taking care of our patients.

    As COVID kind of became part of the norm both in the outside world and inside the hospital, they started reverting back to these lower benchmark levels of staffing. And so we went back to doing more work with fewer resources that we've seen before.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So Jean, what are the possible solutions to this nursing shortage and what's preventing hospitals from pursuing the solutions?

  • Jean Ross, President, National Nurses United:

    The very simple way to fix this is to listen to the nurses to respect them, to respect their judgment. You need to pay people for their worth. And I think you saw our word clearly, during the pandemic, you need to pay the nurses enough that they will stay working, even during a pandemic. And we'll attract other nurses into it because it's a wonderful career.

    The kinds of things that Kelley mentioned that helped us during the pandemic were things that the employer did not easily give us. We had to fight. We had to go to the — we had to go to the governor, we had to go to the President, we had to go to the CDC and OSHA.

    So everything we've got we've had to fight for. And we know what nurses need in order to keep our patients safe. The employer needs to listen to us, needs to acquiesce to our needs for good staffing, and for adequate compensation.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Jean, we reached out to some of the hospitals to get their response to this and a statement that we got from one of the hospital systems, they essentially said that they were deeply disappointed by the nurses union's choice to strike before exhausting all efforts to reach an agreement.

    What do you say to people who might agree with the points that you make but it would also say that by nurses striking that that really put patients at risk? What's your reaction to that?

  • Jean Ross:

    If you don't stand up for what you need for yourself as a nurse, and for patients to keep them safe, that's putting patients at risk. When you do nothing, you're part of the problem. It's very, very hard for nurses to walk out on leave their patients we don't know what kind of care they're getting. And they certainly don't know our patients. We are the best people to provide that care.

    So when employers say, you know, they're disappointed. Well, you know, we have a lot more than disappointment going against them to. We are totally disgusted, quite frankly. They're making money hand over fist despite what they say. And quite frankly, if you can't afford to pay your people to bring them in and keep them maybe you should be looking at a different line of business.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Jean Ross and Kelley Anaas, thanks so much for being with us.

  • Jean Ross:

    You're very welcome.

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