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SLU hospital nurses approve new contract with SSM Health

Marchelle Vernell-Bettis, a trauma ICU nurse, wears a button during an informational picket for St. Louis University Hospital's nurses union.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated Sunday, Sept. 25, 5 p.m. with vote results Nurses at Saint Louis University Hospital have approved a new three-year contract that addresses union members’ concerns over working conditions.  

Their first agreement with SSM Health, which acquired the hospital in 2015, includes a commitment to keeping enough nurses on duty and a requirement that managers give nurses eight hours to rest between shifts.

Earlier this year, the hospital’s chapter of National Nurses United picketed over what union members said was unsafe staffing levels.

“Nurse to patient ratios probably will not be something that is included in anybody’s contract until it is mandated by the government, just like it is in California,” said Marchelle Vernell Bettis, a registered nurse and a member of the bargaining unit. “But it does feel good to have that commitment from SSM that they will take every possible measure to make sure that we have the staffing that we need.”

Bettis said the contract also puts all nurses onto the hospital pay grid, promises an average pay increase of 12 percent and increases their retirement matching incentives, a combination she said will be key to keeping nurses at the hospital.

“We lost quite a few nurses with the transition (of ownership),” Bettis said. “Hopefully this will allow nurses to feel that they’re appreciated and that their years of service and experience will be compensated.”

Between the measures to ensure adequate rest and training, and the financial incentives, Bettis hopes SLU hospital will also be able to attract new nurses.

“There’s a nursing shortage in this city, in this state actually, period. But I almost feel like its like Vegas, if you build it people will come. Nurses have the ability to move around,” Bettis said.

SLU Hospital spokesman Jason Merrill said SSM Health is pleased to have reached an agreement with the nurses’ union.

Original story from Sept. 19 — 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 assigned 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. 

Follow  Eli and Camille on Twitter: @StoriesByEli @cmpcamille.

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.