St. Francis nurses to decide on union

Thursday, March 21, 2002

Registered nurses at St. Francis Medical Center will vote early next month on whether they want a St. Louis-based union to represent them.

The 387 nurses at the Catholic Cape Girardeau hospital will have the opportunity to vote April 4 and 5 on whether or not United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 655 will be allowed to negotiate a contract for them with management at St. Francis.

Some nurses say the center is understaffed and they are underpaid, and they want a union to correct the situation.

Hospital officials, however, say that unions would only get in the way of direct communication between the nurses and management. They point to a nationwide nursing shortage and counter the pay issue by saying their salaries and benefits are competitive.

"We need more nurses for quality patient care," said St. Francis emergency room nurse Janet Casper, who has been with the hospital for 10 years. Everyone realizes there's a nursing shortage, but why would nurses come here if they could go somewhere else and make more money, Casper said.

Dusty Rhodes, a former nurse who today is vice president of human resources for St. Francis, said it would be a step backward for local health care.

"We want to be able to communicate directly with employees," said Rhodes. "When unions are involved, that isn't always possible."

Another meeting

Meanwhile, a number of employees at Schnucks Food and Drug also are meeting with representatives from the same union. Those employees say they are not paid as much as Schnucks union stores and would like to see raises, too.

The Schnucks move is in its infancy, and some employees have been meeting with union representatives for two months.

The St. Francis vote is the result of two years of talk between nurses and union employees. A simple majority of those who vote is required to give the union the power to negotiate for the nurses. Thirty percent of the nurses already voted to move to the next step, a prerequisite percentage for the April vote.

Nancy Parker, the union worker dealing with the St. Francis issue, said that the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency, will administer the secret ballot voting at the hospital.

Parker noted the April election wouldn't make the nurses unionized. She said it simply gives the union the right to come in, prepare a proposal with the nurses and present it to the hospital. If terms are reached, then the nurses will belong to a union.

Some nurses who met Wednesday night with union representatives said that for them, it's all about the quality of health care they can provide.

"We should never be assigned six critical patients at once," Casper said. "We're going home exhausted. If it's your family member who is sick, you want somebody in there who is on their toes."

Nurses at the meeting said they want more staffing, better training, stronger retention efforts and more pay, all items that they feel the union will work to get them. They pointed to multimillion-dollar projects that St. Francis has been involved with recently, including the new family birth center and a proposed $7.5 million fitness center.

"They need to take care of problems internally that need fixing instead of expanding outward," said Jim Shafer, a St. Francis RN for 12 years. "This is not a vendetta, we love the hospital or we wouldn't have been there that long."

Wage studies

Rhodes said St. Francis administrators do regional studies on wages, and nursing pay at the hospital is competitive. Rhodes said that the shortage has affected every hospital in America, and there are 30 positions open at St. Francis, which he said isn't bad when compared to other hospitals.

The vacancy rate is 7.5 percent at St. Francis, which is lower than in St. Louis, he said. The turnover rate at the hospital is 17 percent, with some other hospitals getting as high as 25 percent, he said.

"It's not just the nurses, though," Rhodes said. "We're all feeling the pinch and making due nowadays with less. We have issues like any other hospital, but we believe we can work with the nurses one on one."

Rhodes said he doesn't see how a union can help address the staffing problem.

"If they could, we'd hire them as consultants," Rhodes said. "We realize the shortage has increased the burden on everybody. We'd like to have these positions filled, but it's not realistic considering the national shortage.

"Unions have done some good in some areas. But I don't see them being able to deal with the issues at St. Francis."

Across the street

Across the street at Drury Lodge, a small group of Schnucks employees met with union representatives to talk about getting better pay.

Bob Hente, a meat cutter for Schnucks for the past 22 years, said he's only gotten an average of a 10-cent raise each year for several years. He feels it's unfair that Cape Girardeau's Schnucks is the only non-union Schnucks store in Missouri.

While St. Louis is a bigger market, Hente said he'd like to make somewhere between what he's making now and what they make in St. Louis.

"Equal work should get equal pay," Hente said. "We're just looking into it right now and if we can't better ourselves, we won't do it."

Store manager Dennis Marchi declined to comment.

335-6611, extension 137

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