As many as 15,000 nurses at Twin Cities and Duluth hospitals will strike for three days, starting Sept. 12, if they fail to reach an agreement on overdue three-year contracts.
Thursday’s 10-day strike notice follows weeks of fruitless negotiations – with the two sides falling far apart on wage increases, staffing levels, compensation and support after a prolonged COVID-19 pandemic.
A “retention crisis” prompted the decision, said Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association and critical care nurse at North Memorial Health in Robbinsdale. Unless wages and benefits are dramatically improved, the continued loss of nurses will leave hospitals dangerously understaffed.
“They have to see it for the crisis it is,” Turner said. “We’ve said over and over again that it’s not something we take lightly, but we’re not just going to sit back and do nothing. We can’t.”
The announcement will spark a rush to hire replacement aides at Allina, Children’s and Fairview hospitals in the Twin Cities, as well as HealthPartners Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park and North Memorial Health in Robbinsdale . Nurses will also be on strike at Essentia and St. Luke’s hospitals in Duluth.
Both parties agree on the need to improve recruitment and retention of nurses, but hospitals argue that the proposals of the MNA and its nurses are too costly. Nurses are demanding more than 30% pay increases by the end of the three-year contract while hospitals have offered 10% to 12%.
“It’s just not a realistic number,” said Paul Omodt, spokesman for several of the Twin Cities hospitals in negotiations. Allina and Fairview hospitals are record operating losses so far this year.
Statements from Twin Cities hospitals called the strike decision “precipitated” and urged nurses to consider a federal mediator to help bridge the gap in their proposals. Turner said mediation is premature and usually introduced when both parties are close to an agreement but are stuck on final terms.
Deposits over the past week with the National Labor Relations Commission show that the union is basing the strike on allegations of unfair labor practices by hospitals. If the claims are upheld, they ensure nurses can return to work after the strike and receive reimbursement if they are late.
North Memorial nurse Brianna Hnath argued that hospitals cannot afford to wait to improve benefits and retention. Staffing shortages have already resulted in a 14-hour wait at North’s emergency department recently.
“If things continue as they are, it will become the new normal,” she said.
Methodist nurse Victoria Zeehandelaar said an inpatient observation unit was closed on Wednesday and patients moved out. Only two nurses were scheduled and they would have had to care for eight to 10 patients each.
“We want to make sure our patients receive the best care with the best possible outcomes,” she said.
In addition to pay raises, nurses are asking for recognition bonuses and mental health benefits to compensate for the hardships they have endured during the COVID-19 pandemic. They also want increased safety measures, reporting more incidents involving agitated or upset patients or loved ones. Assaults have caused 31 disabling injuries to patients or workers in Minnesota hospitals since 2010, and 14 have been reported in the past two years, according to adverse event data from hospitals across the state.
While nurses bargain individually with their own hospitals, they collectively agreed to strike to increase bargaining pressure on their employers. They opted for a time-limited protest strike rather than an open-ended strike to create incentives to negotiate while limiting disruption to patient care. Turner called it the largest strike by private sector nurses in US history.
The action follows two strikes totaling 44 days by Allina nurses in 2016 over a dispute over health benefits. Twin Cities hospital nurses also went on strike for a day in 2010.
A 2010 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found about a 19% increase in patient mortality and an almost 7% increase in readmissions during nurse strikes.
Allina declined to provide details on the impact of the 2016 strike on patient outcomes, but said in a statement that the health system would be in a better position to maintain patient care if a strike occurs in 2022. The pandemic has forced hospitals to become adept at recruiting. and temporary help training.
“As a system, we are much more accustomed to working with travel nurses than in 2016,” Allina said in a statement. “We are confident in our planning and ability to provide safe care for the duration of a work stoppage.”