Christy Beach, a mental health worker at Allina Unity Hospital, speaks at a news conference on May 16 in front of M Health Fairview Riverside in Minneapolis. Hundreds of mental health workers at three Twin Cities hospitals say they will strike for one day on May 24, seeking better workplace safety measures and higher pay. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.
Just months after voting to unionize, more than 400 mental health workers at three Twin Cities hospitals say they’re prepared to strike for 24 hours on May 24 if they don’t reach a deal on their first labor agreements.
At a news conference announcing the strike on Monday, workers from Allina and M Health Fairview say both health care systems need to do more to protect workers from physical harm on the job.
“We’re facing increasingly unsafe conditions,” said Christy Beach, senior mental health coordinator at Allina Unity Hospital. “We love to do this work, but it can be very dangerous … especially when we are understaffed.”
Nearly three-quarters of all workplace assaults happen in the health care and social service sectors. Psychiatric and substance abuse hospital workers are particularly vulnerable, with injury rates 12 times higher than health care workers and 60 times higher than workers overall.
Workers say dangerous working conditions coupled with low pay and a lack of respect from hospital administrators has led to high turnover rates, further exacerbating staffing shortages. At the same time, many hospitals have become overwhelmed with patients experiencing mental health crises.
“The overcrowding backlog of patients in my department is at (an) incredible level,” said Chris Nohner, a psych associate at M Health Fairview Riverside.
Mental health workers at M Health Fairview have been further stretched by the arrival of scores of children with behavioral problems and developmental disabilities that other social service agencies dropped off at the emergency room as a place of last resort. The hospital has converted an ambulance garage into makeshift shelter for these children who are not eligible to be admitted and yet have nowhere else to go.
Citing workplace safety concerns, about 350 mental health staff voted overwhelmingly to unionize with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa last September. The following month, about 85 mental health workers at Allina voted to unionize with SEIU, too.
To improve safety, workers say the hospitals should ensure patients don’t have weapons or other dangerous objects when they’re admitted. They also want to form a committee to have a say in guiding the hospitals’ safety protocols.
However, a spokeswoman for M Health Fairview, Aimee Jordan, said workers are “proposing actions that violate our standards of care, and a patient’s privacy rights.”
Neither workers nor the hospitals provided more details. Allina did immediate not return requests for comment.
Workers are also pushing for higher wages, saying there’s a wide disparity in pay between mental health professionals and the rest of the health care industry.
“These workers have been so underpaid and the wages suppressed for so long, that what we’re really trying to do is readjust the wage scale,” said Brenda Hilbrich, executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa.
The two groups have yet to reach agreements on their first contracts or even hash out specifics like a payscale for psych associates, behavioral assistants and other newly-unionized jobs.
Jordan, the M Health Fairview spokeswoman, called the threatened strike action “highly unusual” since she said workers haven’t put forward a proposal for wages
“We have not seen an economic proposal,” Jordan said.
Hilbrich said they are scheduled to resume negotiations with M Health Fairview on Wednesday.
*This story has been updated to clarify the children living in the ambulance garage at M Health Fairview are not in need of inpatient psychiatric care.
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