Nurses go on strike at Twin Cities and Duluth-area hospitals

Picket signs and strike chants were raised at precisely 7 a.m. outside 15 hospitals in the Twin Cities and Duluth area on Monday, where as many as 15,000 nurses walked off the job for three days to protest the compensation and staffing levels.

Early risers at M Health Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina were quickly joined by weary nurses in scrubs who were spinning at night and joining the picket lines. Transition plans to separate striking nurses have crumbled in some cases, leaving them uneasy doing face-to-face transfers of patients with their temporary replacements.

Deb Shirley, a veteran critical care nurse, said it was annoying because her replacement seemed nice but didn’t do a neurological assessment of a patient properly.

“I have no idea what they do or don’t know,” she said.

The time-limited protest is expected to last until 7 a.m. Thursday and involves nurses from 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 are also on strike at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth and Essentia Health Hospitals in Duluth and Superior, Wis.

Hospital administrators said last week they plan to hire enough temporary nurses to maintain their usual operations but will scale back as needed and notify all patients directly of rescheduled appointments or procedures.

Striking nurses said it was frustrating to see break rooms decorated with flowers and motivational signs, and stocked with drinks and snacks for substitutes – little niceties they hadn’t been given. But the main concern on the picket line was staffing levels, which nurses said forced them to care for too many patients at once.

Second-year nurse Madi Gay said she had already cut her nursing hours at Southdale due to the stress and frustration of being asked to care for so many critically ill patients.

“How long can you go on like this?” said Gay, who was picketing Monday morning after finishing his night shift. “My license is at stake.”

Retention amid a growing staffing shortage is a common concern among striking hospitals and nurses represented by the Minnesota Nurses Association. Union president Mary Turner said wage increases were needed to deal with the “retention crisis” that would otherwise leave hospitals severely understaffed.

Nurses are demanding more than 30% pay increases by the end of the three-year contract while hospitals have offered 10% to 12%. Hospital leaders have called nurses’ wage demands unaffordable at a time when Allina and Fairview hospitals are record operating losses. Those increases would ultimately be passed on to patients through their health insurance, they argued.

“The union rejected all requests for mediation and stuck to unrealistic, unreasonable and unaffordable wage demands,” said a joint statement from several striking Twin Cities hospitals.

The statement asked for “patience” during the strike as it could take longer for hospitals to triage patients and assess their medical needs. However, he urged all patients with urgent needs to call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room as usual.

Nurses at the hospital are currently working under the terms of old contracts that expired May 31 in the Twin Cities and June 30 in Duluth. First-year nurses with bachelor’s degrees currently earn about $36 an hour at Twin Cities hospitals, while those with 10 years of experience earn about $51, according to hospital contract data.

No bargaining session is scheduled for this week as long as the strike is in progress.

The nurses argued that hospital staffing levels this weekend were proof of the reasons for their contract demands. A page on Saturday morning alerted North Memorial Emergency Department nurses that the ER needed seven additional nurses to meet staffing needs this afternoon.

“DESPERATE PAGE!!!…PLEASE HELP IF YOU CAN!! CAP CAP CAP!!” the message read, the last words being the double pay code for all the nurses who showed up.

Turner, who is also a critical care nurse at North Memorial, said the collective influence of so many striking nurses at once will hopefully drive change. Leaving fewer nurses to treat more patients, often with more complex issues, “puts us and our patients at terrible risk,” she said. “Our business is in crisis.

Nurses at North and other hospitals also sought protection in their contracts from discipline if they refused shifts they deemed unsafe due to the excessive number and severity of patients they cared for. Hospitals have been reluctant to make contractual changes that reduce their power to set staffing levels in response to daily patient demands.

Negotiations took place on Saturday even as hospitals began training and orienting thousands of temporary nurses who traveled from across the country to support inpatient care this week. Hospitals have reported a strong response to their appeals through recruitment agencies for temporary nurses, who will earn double what many nurses earn.

The pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic has taught hospitals how to maintain patient care despite changing staffing levels, said a statement from the chief nurses of the Children’s and Fairview systems as well as North Memorial and Methodist Hospital at St. Louis Park. “Our hospitals have learned how to effectively train new nursing staff to ensure we stay focused on care.”

Nurses on the picket line said the pandemic was emotionally and physically draining and they wanted their next contract to reward their sacrifice. Kate Zach, an intensive care nurse from Southdale, recalled having to run several times to first put on protective gear before entering rooms to try and save patients in cardiac arrest.

“I want to get paid for the hell of the last two years during COVID,” she said.

This is a developing story. Come back with StarTribune.com for more information.

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