Local 3937: U of M Technical Employees

Demanding Safe Hospitals

HealthEast security officer Kyle McGinn tells a rally on Aug. 24: “We are all part of the care team.”

Security officers at four HealthEast hospitals in the Twin Cities want to unionize with AFSCME, saying a union is the best way for them to fix staffing and safety issues.

The security officers work at Bethesda and St. Joseph’s hospitals in St. Paul, St. John’s Hospital in Maplewood, and Woodwinds Health Campus in Woodbury. Safety issues they face are similar to those that AFSCME members deal with in DHS group homes and other public and private mental-health facilities.

Every hospital is different, says security officer Kyle McGinn. Emergency rooms, psychiatric units, and traumatic brain injury programs all pose different security challenges. “What’s the same across the board is that staffing is way too low,” he says.

At most HealthEast hospitals, workers say, there are only two officers on duty at any time – one in the emergency room and another on patrol outside. But at Bethesda, the overnight shifts typically have only one officer on duty.

The short staffing means that, when every second counts, backup may be several minutes away, says security officer Joe Misensic. At Bethesda, help may be more than half a mile away at St. Joseph’s. Or it may need to come from St. Paul police.

“It doesn’t take that long to get beat up pretty bad,” Misensic says. “It only takes 30 seconds.” Referring to the July beating of a security counselor at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, he says, “We have some of those same kinds of patients here.”

“Security officers want to be able to provide as safe an environment as possible for patients, families, visitors, and other staff members,” McGinn says. “We feel that with the current staffing and the training we’re given at this moment, we’re not able to do that.”

No strangers to assaults

Last November, a patient at St. John’s severely beat a nurse, a case that brought widespread media attention to gaps in hospital security. But in the past year, Bethesda itself has had more than 30 assaults by violent patients, records show.

Outside Bethesda, there have been at least three shootings in the past year. Misensic, who works overnights exclusively, says people routinely drink in the hospital’s outdoor gazebo and pass out in the parking ramp.

“I will admit I don’t feel safe here on the overnights because of the neighborhood. And with the attitude now toward people wearing a badge, it can be very dangerous.”

Getting things done with a union

McGinn says he and his HealthEast co-workers have been asking hospital management for years to add security officers, with minimal results. Officers have gone through the proper chain of command and provided detailed logs of incidents and response times to back up their requests.

“We’re just not feeling that they understand the concerns to the degree that is necessary,” McGinn says. “It’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed quickly and effectively.

“My guess is, we just haven’t had that incident yet where an officer is in peril and the other officer is not there to help them out. We haven’t had that incident where a guy is out of work for a long, long time.”

Forming a union, McGinn says, seems to be the best route to get the changes security officers need. “We’ve realized that organizing this way is the most effective way.”

To prove his point, a few days after security officers took their case public, a HealthEast administrator set up “listening sessions” with any security officer who was interested. “Nobody has ever set up listening sessions for us,” McGinn says. “We have an officer who has been here over 15 years. That’s never happened.

“What that tells us is: Union activity is what’s going to make us be heard.”

Other hospital employees are represented by unions, including the Minnesota Nurses Association, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, and the International Union of Operating Engineers. “MNA, SEIU, and IUOE have a voice,” McGinn said. “Security officers deserve a voice.”

Management turns cold shoulder

Security officers revealed their request Aug. 13 with a news conference and a brief hallway meeting with Cathy Barr, the president of Bethesda Hospital, and Mark Sorenson, director of labor relations for HealthEast. But the administrators rejected the workers’ demand to bargain – and even refused to accept a petition signed by 90 percent of the 45 security officers.

One veteran security officer, Jeff Perry, says the outright rejection was a typical response from hospital management. “They want us to be seen but not heard.”

Under national labor law, the security officers are considered “guards.” That means they are forbidden from holding a union election. Their only way to gain official union status is to persuade management to recognize their union.

That’s why more than 70 elected officials and representatives from a dozen unions rallied

Aug. 24 outside Bethesda in support of the security officers. “The security officers are always there for us,” says Linda Hamilton, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association. “They deserve a place at the table with us.”

“I would just like the hospital to be proactive instead of reactive,” Misensic says. “I don’t want the hospital to say, ‘Well, now we’ll do something now that you got beat up pretty bad’.”
 

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