Local 4001 MnSCU

In St. Peter, Union Creates the Solution

DHS’ Carol Olson and Local 404’s John Knobbe worked together to draft new staffing arrangements that work both for the agency and for members.

An unprecedented collaboration between Local 404 and DHS administrators at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter created more than 40 new full-time jobs, wiped out thousands of hours of mandatory overtime each month, and re-arranged schedules in a way that cuts costs, eases pressures on workers, and provides better treatment for patients.

The results show what can be accomplished when management involves front-line workers in solving problems.

The changes came after CEO Carol Olson let Local 404 dig through years of records in hopes the union could find solutions to excessive overtime and other scheduling nightmares that plagued the hospital.

“Things are changing now,” says local vice-president W. John Knobbe. “Issues are being resolved. We’re getting to the point where we’re working together to do the best job we can.”

A real solution

The biggest change is a new staffing rotation that union leaders and management developed in tandem. The schedule was phased in at the end of 2013. It arranges shifts and staffing in a way that works better for the hospital, for patients, and for the 250 security counselors AFSCME represents, Knobbe says.

The new rotation is an alternative to a plan that the administration was going to implement unilaterally at the end of 2012. That plan would have obliterated seniority and turned the person¬al lives of members upside down, Knobbe says.

Instead, the local and Council 5 worked with Olson to find the roots of the scheduling problems, then come up with a real solution. By the fall of 2013, they developed a rotation that:

  • Eliminates nearly 5,000 hours of overtime each month. That practice was wreaking havoc on department budgets, and wreaking havoc on the health and personal lives of security counselors – who had to work as much as 16 hours straight, often without a choice. “It was just burning people out,” Knobbe says.
  • Creates a new 10-hour shift, and staggers the start and end times of other shifts. Now, shifts overlap. That supplies additional staffing for a few key hours each day when needs are highest. 
  • Improves care and treatment of patients. The overlapping shifts help staff carry out more treatment activities, allow counselors to meet and compare notes when they transfer care of a patient from one shift to another, and shore up security operations at different parts of the day.

“You have more of a continuous flow to the day,” Knobbe says. “Everyone knows the mood of the unit and how the patients are doing when they come on board.”

Union finds unfilled positions

Knobbe’s research uncovered that most of the staffing problems were self-inflicted. The biggest surprise: Administrators before Olson actually had been authorized to hire 39.5 additional full-time equivalent positions – but never did so.

Those vacancies, Knobbe notes, would have recovered most of the 58 layoffs that St. Peter endured under Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Since Olson and the union starting working together, the security hospital has filled 44 full-time vacancies. Those new positions made the new scheduling possible. They also all but eliminate costly, mandated overtime. And they create enough of a staffing cushion that security counselors actually can take vacation, Knobbe says.

Existing part-time and intermittent employees got first crack at the new full-time jobs. Temporary workers got first crack at the classified, part-time jobs that remain in order to give the hospital additional scheduling flexibility.

“I really feel like, with this administration, she is willing to listen with a critical mind, look at the issues, and let us give her an honest appraisal of what’s going on and how they can improve it,” Knobbe says. “It’s a breath of fresh air.”
 

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