Mental health workers launch 3-day strike at Allina hospitals in Twin Cities

By: - October 3, 2022 3:40 pm

Anthony Deutsch, senior mental health coordinator at Allina’s Abbott Northwestern Hospital, pickets in front of the hospital during a three-day strike on Oct. 3, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

More than 130 mental health workers at two Minneapolis area hospitals began a three-day strike on Monday to pressure Allina Health for higher wages, better benefits and more safety protections from violent and abusive patients.

The strike at Abbott Northwestern and Mercy Hospital-Unity Campus comes amid growing unrest among health care workers, who say they’re chronically overworked and underpaid. Some 15,000 Minnesota nurses — including at Allina hospitals — walked off the job last month in a historic strike and could do so again in the coming weeks as they seek significant pay and staffing increases.

Mental health workers at Allina and M Health Fairview voted to unionize a year ago with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa and went on a one-day strike in May in frustration over stalled negotiations.

Since then, little progress has been made. M Health Fairview workers did return to the bargaining table on Monday, believing they could make progress on a first labor contract.

Workers at Allina Health, however, said they were at a stand-still, alleging the health system is opposed to negotiating benefits, staffing levels and virtually anything else beyond wages.

“It’s been a long year. It’s been a long battle,” said Kellie Benson, a senior mental health coordinator at Abbott Northwestern, during a Monday news conference. “We keep coming to the table and Allina keeps coming with nothing for us.”

In a statement posted to its website, Allina Health says they have reached agreements on issues dealing with workplace safety, but that the workers’ wage and benefit proposals are “unrealistic and unsustainable.”

The statement continued: “We are disappointed the union is choosing to take its members on strike, which does not benefit anyone. However, we are prepared to continue caring for our community through the duration of the union’s strike.”

Allina Health did not specify who will fill in for striking workers.

Jamie Gulley, president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa, said Allina has agreed to standard workplace health and safety language like that in contracts for some 5,000 other Allina workers unionized with SEIU, including dietitians and stenographers. Allina has not agreed to any protections specific for mental health workers, Gulley said.

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 — and physical assault and verbal abuse is common.

The high rates of abuse isn’t unique to Allina: Mental health workers face the highest risk of workplace injury from assault out of any other occupation. 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.

The union has proposed safety precautions like screening patients for weapons when they’re admitted and allowing pregnant staff to decline working with violent patients. Workers also say more staff on duty would reduce the risk of abuse. Workers say Allina has not agreed to those proposals.

Workers are also pushing for higher wages, citing a wide disparity in pay between mental health professionals and those with similar degrees in other sectors of the health care industry.

Dutch Reeves said he earned $21.50 an hour when he was hired at Abbott Northwestern as a senior mental health coordinator about three years ago. Since then, his wages have grown to about $24 an hour but lag behind other workers with four-year degrees.

Reeves, who serves on the bargaining committee for the union, said Allina is proposing a starting wage of $21.50 for his job — identical to the starting wage three years ago despite inflation reaching a 40-year high.

The union has proposed a starting wage of $27 an hour and 5% increases in each of the next two years.

The union has also proposed Allina pay 100% of the cost of health insurance to mental health workers under its plan, which is what other union workers get. The union says Allina is avoiding putting health benefits in the contract, which would allow it to reduce benefits without negotiating with the union as it can with non-union staff.

The protracted negotiations over a first labor contract are a common challenge for new unions. It takes new unions 465 days on average to ratify a first contract, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Law.

“I honestly thought it would be over within a year,” Reeves said. “And they have made it very clear that they want a lot of things from us and not give us anything in return.”

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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.