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McFarland nurses demonstrate to protest staff shortages

Maureen McKinney/NPR Illinois

About 45 nurses and supporters rallied in bitter temperatures Wednesday to protest a shortage of staff at the state-run McFarland Mental Health Center in Springfield.

Stephanie Ambrose, a registered nurse and steward for the Illinois Nurses Association, said the shortage means nurses work shifts as long as 16 hours, including some that are mandatory. They have a contract agreement, she said, that limits overtime in a shift to 12 hours, but complaints have not brought about change.

She said the result is poor morale and unsafe conditions at McFarland, which serves people who are considered by the justice system to be unfit for trial, found not guilty by reason of insanity or have been committed civilly.

“We thought we would take an action and rally to get management's attention to the problem and hopefully get some solutions and fix the issues,” Ambrose said.

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Human Services said along with Central Management Services, the department has taken several steps to hire, retain and recruit during a nationwide staffing shortage. Negotiations are expected to occur in the next few months on a new contract, Ambrose said.

“Our major concern is the safety of our working conditions, which affects the safety of our staff and the safety of our patients. We have a lot of open vacant positions at McFarland, both for nurses and mental health technicians, and security therapy aides. There's probably 30 of their positions that are vacant,’’ she said.

She said 11 of the 56 to 61 positions for nurses are vacant.

“The state is not posting these positions so that people can apply to them. We're staffing the facility on overtime and voluntary overtime and mandatory overtime. And so this results in units working short-staffed, people caring directly for the patients or working with not enough staff or the staff that is there is exhausted from working so much overtime, and it creates unsafe working conditions. And that was why we were out there rallying today, because we have tried meetings with management and negotiations with management, filing grievances, and it really hasn't had much effect and conditions haven't changed.”

“It creates low morale. It causes people to want to leave because they feel like they don't have enough time away from work, or they just feel like they're always at work. And they don't have time with their families,’’ Ambrose said.

Spokespeople for the Illinois Nurses Association and AFSCME 31, which represents a good share of state workers, said the staffing shortage is a problem at state-run facilities throughout the state.

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