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Mental health hospital workers strike over safety, benefits
Star Tribune - 10/3/2022
More than 130 hospital mental health workers went on strike against Allina Health Monday — a year to the month after unionizing in an effort to improve benefits and workplace safety.
Stephanie Stark, a senior mental health coordinator, said the strike was necessitated by inaction over workers' demands for pay that matches their college-level training, union-protected benefits, and security "that acknowledges the unique challenges of our position."
"There's an awful lot of things Allina is not interested in," said Stark, during a strike rally outside Allina's Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. "But if they want to hire and keep good employees, they're going to have to start getting interested in settling the contract with the benefits and safety protections we deserve."
The three-day strike by workers represented by SEIU Healthcare comes after months of unsuccessful negotiations to reach a first contract. Workers also picketed the former Unity Hospital in Fridley, which became a large inpatient mental health provider after Allina merged it with Mercy Hospital in 2017.
Allina in a written statement said mental health care was ongoing at both hospitals and appointments will take place as scheduled unless patients are contacted directly to reschedule. The Minneapolis-based health system added that worker safety is a priority and that the two sides have already agreed on several protections.
"While we have reached agreement with the union on most non-economic issues, including many workplace safety items, the union continues to push for wage and benefit increases that are unrealistic and unsustainable at a time when Minnesota health systems are facing significant financial challenges," the statement said.
The workers are seeking 15% pay raises over the first three years of the contract along with scheduled pay bumps by years of experience. Requested protections include exemptions for pregnant workers from caring for patients who have exhibited violence, and peer support for workers who have been physically or verbally assaulted during their shifts.
Stark, who has worked in mental health at Abbott for almost 10 years, picketed with her newborn swaddled against her chest. Nurses helped her avoid particularly dangerous shifts during pregnancy, but she said others haven't been afforded that protection when staffing levels were low.
"We just really wanted something in our contract that gave us that protection," she said.
A planned strike of M Health Fairview hospitals was cancelled last week after mental health workers reported progress in negotiations with that health system.
The contract demands echo those of 15,000 Twin Cities and Duluth hospital nurses, many of whom trod on the exact same sidewalks one month earlier during their three-day strike. Contract talks between seven health systems and nurses represented by the Minnesota Nurses Association resumed after that strike and haven't reached any deals yet.
Picketing workers said there is a worsening shortage of psych technicians and mental health coordinators. The unlicensed, college-educated workers operate under nurse supervision to provide hands-on care and emotional support to patients in emergency rooms and inpatient psychiatric units.
Eric Linde said he has been assaulted and "banging up quite a bit" as a mental health coordinator for more than 30 years, but that he still loves the challenges of working with this patient population. He said he worries current safety guarantees and pay levels aren't enough to retain and recruit enough workers and to maintain safe staffing levels.
"Things have changed the last four or five years in my opinion," he said.
At the end of 2021, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development reported 402 job openings for psychiatric technicians — about 20% of that workforce in the state.
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