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SLU hospital nurses to vote on new contract with SSM Health

By Eli Chen, St. Louis Public Radio, 9/21/16

Photo Credit: Durrie Bouscaren, St. Louis Public Radio

A year after SSM Health acquired Saint Louis University Hospital, nurses there will vote on a new contract that could improve working conditions and help the hospital attract other registered nurses.

The agreement would resolve a dispute between hospital administrators and nurses. Members of National Nurses United, which represents 660 nurses, have complained of exhaustion and unsafe work conditions caused by being assigneda too many patients. National Nurses United conducted a study in late 2015 that found that optimal staffing levels at SLU Hospital were not met on 58 percent of shifts in a 21-day period.

Language in the tentative contract does not specify any patient-nurse ratios, as it does in California state law, but it would require hospital managers to ensure that nurses are not overloaded with patients.

That is critically important, especially for the intensive care unit nurses who can only afford to pay attention to one or two patients at a time, said registered nurse Julie Coomer, who has worked at the hospital for 24 years,

The agreement would require that nurses receive eight hours of rest between shifts.

Workplace safety also was addressed in the new contract. Under its terms, the hospital would hire a psychiatric assistant to help nurses in the psychiatric care unit handle potentially violent patients. Because SLU Hospital is a Level 1 trauma center, it is common for patients to become violent toward nurses.

"We had a meeting with management during bargaining and when the question was asked, 'Have you ever been assaulted by a patient?' Every single nurse raised their hand," Coomer said.

The contract also would raise salaries by an average of 12 percent over three years, provides an improved retirement plan benefit, training for nurses in diseases prevention and prevention of workplace violence and improved ability for nurses to advocate for patients and themselves.

"We feel that SSM really worked with us," Coomer said, "and we feel like they're taking steps in the right direction to help us provide safe care and that has been our passion."

Voting sessions will take place Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. If passed, the contract will be ratified the next day.

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