Mayo Clinic surgical workers petition: unsafe working conditions may be 'downright greed'

Almost 300 surgery workers from Mayo Clinic's St. Mary's and Methodist campuses in Rochester, Minn., submitted a petition to Mayo's leadership May 25, after outlining their grievances about patient and worker safety concerns and employee retention issues at a press conference aired on Rochester's NBC affiliate station KTTC.

The workers, both current and former employees, many who are represented by SEIU Health Minnesota & Iowa, requested leadership respond to the petition by June 1 and have asked for a face-to-face meeting with Mayo Clinic President and CEO Gianrico Farrugia, MD. 

"We have grievances about excessive overtime…people not getting their breaks…people who are scrubbed in who don't have the training that [certified surgical technologists] do," said Hallie Wallace, a representative of the surgery workers union, during the press conference. "We are hitting a brick wall. We have been given empty promises that these things will be fixed and nothing is changing."

Michael Kendrick, MD, chair of Mayo Clinic's department of surgery, released the following statement in response to the petition: "Mayo Clinic leaders have an unwavering commitment to our staff and to providing high-quality, safe patient care. We encourage our staff to share concerns, especially those related to staff and patient safety. The concerns raised during today’s SEIU news conference have been investigated by our internal leadership team as well as by The Joint Commission. These investigations did not substantiate the union's claim about unsafe practices."

Becker's reached out to Mayo Clinic to learn if leadership is planning to meet with union leaders and disgruntled employees as requested in the petition. There was no response at time of publication. This story will be updated as appropriate.

Niki Church, who worked at Mayo Clinic for more than eight years in both union and non-union surgical worker positions, said she initiated the petition because of her concerns about inadequate staffing, scarcity of supplies, employees not receiving time for breaks and being forced to work an uncapped amount of overtime. 

At the press conference, Ms. Church said she resigned from Mayo in February because she felt the hospital's treatment of workers "seemed almost inhumane" and she "consistently" saw what she thought were unsafe working conditions coupled with "unrealistic expectations" of employees. 

Several workers who spoke at the press conference referenced increased elective surgeries requiring surgical workers to work overtime. "At best this is short sightedness that can be easily remedied, but at worst this is downright greed," Ms. Church said, noting Mayo has "unrealistic expectations" of surgical workers who have been placated with "the promise of better conditions, equipment and pay in the future."

"This seems horribly unfair to me," she said. "The fact that a hospital is allowed to consistently require seemingly unhealthy amounts of overtime which puts their employees and patients at risk with no repercussions…seems grossly negligent to me."

Sam Bright, a certified surgical technologist at Saint Mary's and member of SEIU, spoke of the airplane-oxygen mask metaphor that calls on people to care for themselves before attempting to care for others. “We are not machines, and our patients are not products on a conveyor belt,” she said. "The key to providing patient care is in the employees' ability to do so. That level of care has continued to be compromised with exhaustion and burnout."

She said burnout can lead to employees making mistakes and puts patients at risk of medical errors.

In addition to safer conditions and policies for surgical workers, the petition also calls for actions to retain staff.

Ms. Bright called on Mayo Clinic to institute policies that protect workers from turnover and encourage talented and dedicated staff to stay. "There is only so far that good and passionate employees can be pushed before they become collectively demoralized and burnt out. I am sick and tired of seeing co-workers come and go because they have reached that breaking point by the status quo."

Jen Santos Norgren, a sterile processing technician and member of SEIU, told attendees at the press conference that the petition includes demands for more initiatives to retain staff. These include wage increases, retention bonuses and pay for preceptors.  

"Many feel as if our department is hemorrhaging (staff members) and we need to stop the bleeding," Ms. Santos Norgren said. "Our staff are jumping ship to go to other departments where there's less overtime, lower workload and higher pay. Or, they're leaving the facility altogether."

In his statement, Dr. Kendrick added, "We continue to work with our staff to identify ways we can further support them. As was acknowledged at the press conference, we have many efforts underway to jointly identify solutions, including regularly exchanging ideas through staff and leadership meetings as well as our safety and staff engagement committees. Though this is a challenging time for the healthcare industry, we remain steadfast and committed to our staff and will continue to identify solutions to current challenges."

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