Thousands of nurses in Minneapolis and St. Paul walked off the job today in what union organizers there call the largest nursing strike in U.S. history.
About 12,000 nurses from the Minnesota Nurses Association are expected to walk picket lines today in front of 14 different hospitals in the Twin Cities. At least 4,000 nurses were already on the lines last this morning, union spokesman John Nemo said. The strike, he said, will last until 7 a.m. Friday morning, when the nurses will report back to work.
The union voted for the strike last month after failing to reach an agreement on a new contract with the hospital organization Twin Cities Hospitals.
Union members have said that hospital staff is spread too thin and they're opposed to hospital plans that would allow more flexibility in switching nurses from one department to another. They argue that hospitals should better plan nurse assignments so such switching wouldn't be necessary.
"They're not willing to hire and invest in the staffing that we need," Nellie Munn,33, a nurse at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, told ABCNews.com recently. "Nurses have to stand up for patients now."
The hospitals, meanwhile, say they're just doing what they can to keep health care affordable while grappling with cuts to state funding and continuing to invest in technology and facilities improvements.
Maureen Schriner, a spokeswoman for Twin Cities Hospitals, said the staffing levels the union is demanding would cost the hospitals an additional $250 million a year.
"So many of the proposals the union is putting forward are so expensive and don't improve quality of patient care," she said. "The hospitals are finding that unacceptable."
Schriner said that the hospitals have hired 2,800 nurses to replace those on strike today. All hospital emergency rooms and birthing centers are fully-staffed and open, she said.
"Our focus for right now is to ensure that our patients are receiving the quality of care they've come to expect," she said.
The nursing strike comes at a time when experts say they're seeing, at least in some regions, a temporary easing of the country's nursing shortage. Would-be nurses in some states are now finding that gaining employment is no longer the sure bet it once was.
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing said that colleges in Minnesota, New York, New Jersey and California all report that there seems to be more nursing graduates than there are jobs in those regions. At St. Catherine University in Minnesota, two-thirds of this year's nursing graduates have yet to find work, according to a university survey.
Layoffs and hiring freezes at hospitals account for at least part of the problem. In Minnesota, hospitals have slashed more than 2,200 positions since the fall of 2008, according to the Minnesota Hospital Association.
Industry watchers say that nurse longevity in the wake of the recession is the other reason nursing jobs are harder to find. Experienced nurses are staying at their jobs longer instead of retiring, and part-time nurses are taking full-time positions.
"We've got this bad economy," American Association of Colleges of Nursing spokesman Robert Rosseter said. "They need to keep working to support their families."
Rosseter and others insist that the job outlook is still bright for nurses overall and that the decline in nursing jobs in some regions is only temporary. The health care sector has continued to add jobs throughout the recession, and experts predict that in the next 10 to 15 years, the country will experience a shortage of nurses that could range from 260,000 to more than 1 million.
For now, Rosseter recommends that recent nursing graduates expand their job searches to look beyond sought-after positions at hospitals and consider jobs at nursing homes, home health aid agencies and other businesses.
Job candidates also could look across state lines: Rosseter said that states such as Texas, Missouri and North and South Dakota still face nursing shortages.
But not everyone is willing to travel. Some Minnesota nurse union members say they would never consider leaving their hospitals because conditions seem to be the same or worse elsewhere.
"The places that have the most trouble attracting and retaining nurses are places where conditions of care are critically unsafe," nurse Munn said. "Nurses feel tremendous guilt when they can't fill patient needs. I would never want to put myself in a situation like that."