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Minnesota Nurses Reach Deals in Twin Cities, Duluth

Understaffing had become a key source of contention in negotiations, as nurses argued they were being given excessive caseloads and forced to work back-to-back shifts because nobody else was available to care for their patients.

A nurse wearing goggles and a face mask administering a vaccine into a patient’s arm.
(TNS) - Nurses reached tentative contracts with numerous hospitals in the Twin Cities and Duluth, avoiding ill-timed strikes amid an increase in respiratory diseases and patients.

Negotiators in marathon overnight sessions Monday and Tuesday closed a huge gap in wage demands, agreeing to 18% raises over three years for nurses in the Twin Cities at Allina Health, Children’s Minnesota, M Health Fairview, Methodist Hospital and North Memorial. Raises of 17% over three years were announced for nurses at Essentia Health and St. Luke’s in the Duluth area along with other bonuses.

“For years, hospital executives have been pushing nurses out of the profession by under-staffing our units and under-valuing our nurses,” said Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) and an intensive care nurse at North Memorial. “This tentative agreement will help to keep nurses at the bedside.”

The deals came less than a week after the MNA notified 16 hospitals of strikes that were scheduled to start Dec. 11. Months of prior negotiations had failed to produce compromises on raises and solutions to growing workplace violence and understaffing problems. The breakdown had already prompted around 15,000 Twin Cities and Duluth hospital nurses to strike for three days in September.

Allina Health alone spent $23 million extra to remain open during the September strike. A 20-day strike in December would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars collectively for all of the health systems, and intensified pressure on hospitals that already are full with patient infected with RSV, influenza and COVID-19.

“We are thankful to be able to return our full attention to caring for the community at this time of increased illness and demand,” said a statement from Allina, which reached tentative contracts for nurses at its Abbott Northwestern, Mercy and United hospitals.

While nurses negotiate individually with their health systems every three years, the concurrent nature of the talks often produces multiple agreements at once. A deal with St. Luke’s nurses was announced late Monday night and then others followed Tuesday morning.

Contracts with the Twin Cities nurses had expired June 1, making their agreements more than six months overdue. Raises will be retroactive and paid for the entire first year. Nurses at one point wanted more than 30% raises over three years while the hospitals opening offers were around 10%.

Understaffing had become a key source of contention in negotiations, as nurses argued they were being given excessive caseloads and forced to work back-to-back shifts because nobody else was available to care for their patients.

Solutions varied among the tentative contracts reached with individual hospital systems, but all nurses gained a voice in addressing unsafe staffing levels, Turner said: “Nurses have more of an open door now to management when things need to change, when things are a mess.”

The tentative agreement for Children’s, for example, provided block scheduling for full-time nurses who requested it, preventing night shifts followed by day shifts that could lead to fatigue and burnout. The agreement also spelled out nurses’ rights to question assignments with excessive patient loads.

Nurses also will be part of an evaluation team that will review staffing levels at least annually, and more frequently if preventable problems such as nurse injuries or patient falls or bed sores increase by 50%. Turner said that was a key demand by the union that is reflected in contracts at other hospitals to confront staffing problems that exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week’s strike notice intensified negotiations, which took place throughout the weekend before hospitals had to commit multimillion dollars expenditures to hire replacement nurses. Hospitals leaders said they already had to make some payments for strike planning, but were waiting on hiring contracts as long as possible.

Children’s had already closed its inpatient psychiatric unit in St. Paul to new admissions on Saturday and was planning to cut its intensive care capacity in half during the strike and possibly transfer critically ill patients out of state.

A group of Allina doctors took the unusual step Monday of writing to Gov. Tim Walz and other state health leaders, alerting them to severe consequences.

“A strike when capacity remains challenging will result in reduced surgical services, longer emergency room wait times, and delayed access to hospital care,” the two dozen doctors wrote. “The downstream effects will impact access to beds at non-striking hospitals and will further delay patient care in clinics too. This risks a public health crisis for our community.”

Nurses must vote to ratify the tentative agreements reached by their union and hospital negotiators, which would cancel their plans to strike Dec. 11-31.

A note from Children’s nurse negotiators said “we will be sleeping all day Tuesday” after 20 hours of almost nonstop negotiating. Meetings were scheduled Wednesday for nurses to ask questions in advance of their vote.

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