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Striking health care workers in difficult spot
By Rob Schmitz
Minnesota Public Radio
October 8, 2001
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As the state workers strike enters its second week, developmentally disabled patients in state-run treatment homes have National Guard troops as replacements for their normal care providers. Many striking employees of these homes feel they've been placed in a difficult position.

Until she went on strike from her job as a human service technician at a state-run group home in Rochester, Maggie Hodge cared for four mentally disabled adults. Hodge says she can't help but feel a maternal concern for her patients, now being cared for by temporary replacement workers from the National Guard.

"It's their home. It's like if the National Guard came to my home and it was temporary, and they didn't know my kids, its the same thing. It's very hard," says Hodge.

On Monday, six out of eight employees at the home went on strike. They've been replaced by three National Guard employees with no experience in health care, except for a two-day training session. Speaking from a picket line in front of Rochester Community College, Hodge says she's been unable to sleep well and has been suffering from headaches - worrying about the well-being of her patients. She fights back tears as she talks about one patient in particular, an older man with Downs Syndrome who is hard of hearing. She says he most likely doesn't understand why she's been gone.

"When we come in he shows us his picture, we give him a hug, he tells us he loves us - he signs. He definitely know I'm not there. He'll just keep signing my picture to someone that is there."

As much as Hodge would like to keep in touch with her patients, she says trying to visit them would only make it more difficult on them. Kelly Gillespie, an employee at another group home in the area, says that routines are very important for mentally disabled patients like hers, and her National Guard substitute represents a potentially damaging disruption to this routine.

"After the first day, one of the National Guards said to one of the staff, 'this is a piece of cake.' Then the second day, one of the clients approached this Guard member extremely upset because they had not taken him to the bank, and he goes to the bank on Mondays. They hadn't done this, and the things that he does on Mondays are very important to him - that are his routine," says Gillespie.

As regional administrator of State Operated Community Services, Rod Kornrumpf oversees many group homes in Minnesota. Kornrumpf agrees routines are being broken, but he says the National Guard staff is doing an excellent job, given the circumstances.

"Our patients do get used to a routine and for a lot of them, when you break the routine, there's some discomfort. I think the advantage here is that the National Guard came in very sensitive to these issues," says Kornrumpf.

In addition to receiving two days of training, the National Guard workers were briefed by permanent staff on individual patients. Kornrumpf adds that his employees have the right to strike, pointing out that although they've left their jobs to walk the picket lines, they still care very much for their patients.

"I know people are saying, 'If you really cared you wouldn't be out here, you'd be there.' The reason I'm out here on the lines and not inside the group home is because I care," says striker Kelly Gillespie. "I care so much about my job - I love my job. I want to continue to be at that house for as long as I'm in this field. But if I can't have a good contract and a good package, then I can't work there because I can't support my family."

Gillespie says being able to support both her family at her home and her family at the group home will remain her top priority.