Mental health workers strike at three Twin Cities hospitals, citing unsafe working conditions

By: - May 24, 2022 3:43 pm

Brian McIntosh, a psych associate at M Health Fairview, speaks at a rally during a 24-hour strike by mental health workers at three Twin Cities hospitals on May 24, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Hundreds of mental health workers at three Twin Cities hospitals walked off the job on Tuesday to push for safer workplaces, higher wages and more staff.

The one-day strike comes just months after more than 400 workers voted to unionize at M Health Fairview and two Allina hospitals, Abbott Northwestern and Mercy Hospital-Unity Campus.

Workers are still negotiating their first contracts and say talks have broken down over wages and more support to prevent and respond to workplace injuries.

The newly unionized psych associates, behavioral assistants and other mental health workers provide care to the most volatile patients in the health care system — people in psychiatric crisis and withdrawing from drugs.

“Everybody has been injured on the job,” said Brian McIntosh, a psych associate at M Health Fairview. “I’ve been hit, kicked, spit on, everything. We need more safety.”

Nearly three-quarters of all workplace assaults happen in the health care and social service sectors. Hospital workers who care for psychiatric and substance abuse patients are particularly vulnerable, with injury rates 12 times higher than health care workers and 60 times higher than workers overall.

Buffy Abrams, who has been a psych associate for 34 years at M Health Fairview, said a patient detoxing from opiates once broke two of her ribs. She had put herself in front of him to stop him from attacking another patient, and he picked her up and threw her into a table.

There was just one other staff member there at the time, so even with broken ribs, Abrams said she had to physically restrain the patient and get him to a secluded room. Abrams said she had to take three days off work to recover, and Fairview made her use her paid time off.

“When you have to use your own time off, you don’t feel supported by the hospital,” Abrams said.

Aimee Jordan, a spokeswoman for M Health Fairview, says the hospital has been negotiating with the union in good faith, but that they haven’t received a counterproposal on health and safety measures since March.

She also noted that the hospital hadn’t received wage proposals from the union until four days after the workers gave notice of their one-day strike.

“Receiving wage proposals right before a planned work stoppage left us with no time to negotiate, and didn’t give us the chance to avoid a work stoppage that doesn’t benefit anyone, especially our vulnerable patients,” Jordan wrote in an email.

Workers want hospitals to cover their time off to heal from workplace injuries. They also want the hospitals to do more to prevent patients from bringing weapons and other dangerous contraband like fentanyl onto the mental health units.

And the workers are pushing for higher wages, saying mental health workers earn less than their peers with comparable four-year degrees working in other parts of the health system.

McIntosh, who has a college degree and has worked at M Health Fairview for 12 years, earns $24 an hour. He says they would like to see psych associates earn more than $30 an hour.

Jordan did not respond to a follow-up question on how the hospital is caring for patients during the strike. Allina did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Mental health workers say the low pay paired with dangerous working conditions 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.

Mental health workers at M Health Fairview are also dealing with 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 converted an ambulance garage into makeshift shelter for these kids, who are not eligible to be admitted and yet have nowhere else to go.

Even though the hospital says the kids were not patients, the mental health workers still have to care for them.

Democratic lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler and Sen. Erin Murphy, a union nurse, joined workers on the picket line in front of M Health Fairview on Riverside Avenue.

“I am your sister in this fight,” Murphy said. “Neither our employers, like this one behind us, nor many of my colleagues inside that Capitol, especially right now the Republican Senate majority, give a damn about us. And we won’t get what we need until we fight for it.”

*Based on incorrect information provided by M Health Fairview, a previous version of this story reported there were no longer kids living in the ambulance garage. There are still kids staying in the garage.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.