BISMARCK — Nurses at Bismarck’s CHI St. Alexius picketed outside their hospital Thursday evening, June 25, in response to stalled contract negotiations over staffing issues.

The picket is a culmination of 10 months and more than 20 negotiation meetings between St. Alexius nurses, part of the Minnesota Nurses Association, and officials at CHI St. Alexius. Central demands over wages, benefits and short staffing, which nurses stress are critical to patient safety and talent retention, have become a sticking point in recent weeks.

Margo Maxin, a St. Alexius employee of 17 years who works in the intensive care unit, said that the negotiating team's staffing requests “were not being taken seriously.” The nurses union has scored a few important victories in the course of negotiations, but they called for a picket after CHI refused to engage their wage, benefits and staffing requests, asking the negotiating team to withdraw their staffing proposal at a meeting earlier this month.

“We wanted to take it and picket to have our voices heard,” said Maxin, "to let them know that we mean business, and that we are going to keep fighting for safe staffing for our patients.”

At the picket, marchers brandished signs reading, "Safe Staffing Saves Lives," and "Nurses Needs Before Corporate Greed!" and were met with honks of solidarity by passing traffic. The picket began at 3 p.m. and is slated to stretch to 9 p.m., with nurses filtering in and out as their hospital shifts allow.

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CHI St. Alexius administrators preemptively apologized to their patients and physicians “for any inconvenience” created by the picket. “The nurses participating in the informational picket are valued and respected members of our health care team,” CHI commented in a press release. “We believe the best place to resolve differences and achieve an agreement is at the bargaining table. We continue to negotiate in good faith in the hopes of reaching a fair and equitable agreement with our union.”

Three hundred and thirty-three union nurses work at St. Alexius, and picketers emphasized that all nurses were participating during their time off.

St. Alexius nurses say that they are routinely called to juggle up to six patients at a time, a system that leaves only minutes for each patient on the hour. “If a patient all of a sudden becomes a little more critical, then the other five patients are not being cared for in that hour,” said Maxin.

"We're constantly working short staffed," said Molly Artz, an intensive care nurse. "At that point you're not using critical thinking, you're not using your brain to make the patient better. You're basically passing meds and taking vital signs."

St. Alexius, one of two hospitals in Bismarck, handles a high patient load because it serves as one of the only Level 2 trauma units in the region, fielding patients from all over western North Dakota, South Dakota and parts of eastern Montana.

Bismarck is also home to three nursing schools, but the city struggles to retain its own talent as many new nurses leave for hospitals in Fargo, Grand Forks, Jamestown or out of state. Half of the nurses on the St. Alexius staff have fewer than five years of experience.

“I really like the people I work with and seeing them go for reasons that maybe could have been prevented is always hard,” Artz said. “Keeping that experience is key, and getting new nurses and passing the torch on to them is also very important.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.