Updated: Sept. 13, 11:22 a.m. | Posted: Sept. 12, 6 a.m.
Nurses at 15 hospitals in the Twin Cities and northern Minnesota began a three-day walkout Monday morning.
The strike started at 7 a.m. and is scheduled to last until early Thursday morning. Union officials said no negotiations are currently planned during the strike period.
Union nurses have been in negotiations since March, and working without a contract since June. The main sticking points are wage increases, retention, staffing and safety concerns, as well as addressing ongoing burnout, heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Minnesota Nurses Association leaders have said it's likely the largest private-sector nurses strike in U.S. history. About 15,000 nurses from the union are participating in the strike.
Earlier this month, the union said 16 hospitals were expected to be part of the strike. On Monday, though, staff at 15 hospitals struck while nurses at the Essentia hospital in Moose Lake, Minn., chose to conduct an informational picket.
Thousands picket outside hospitals
In August, union members voted to authorize a strike. The union is required to provide hospital officials 10 days notice before walking off the job, which they did in a press conference on Sept. 1.
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Just before 7 a.m. Monday, a group of nurses and others are gathered at Stewart Park across the street from Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis. It's the hub where people will sign in, grab a union T-shirt and a sign, and prepare to get out on the picket line during the strike.
Before they headed out, one member with a bullhorn led the group in a chant: “When I say nurses you say power. Nurses. Power! Nurses. Power! When I say contract you say now. Contract. Now! Contract. Now!”
People driving by honked their horns in support of the nurses.
"The most important thing for us is safe staffing. And we have proposals on the table to have nurses have a say in how things go. We do the work … we're the ones that take care of the patients. We need a say in how things go," said Tricia Ryshkus, a nurse at Children's Minnesota in Minneapolis and a member of the Minnesota Nurses Association negotiating team.
Ryshkus worked Sunday night at the hospital, but joined her colleagues picketing outside Abbott Northwestern on Monday morning.
"We don't want the pandemic, the short staffing and all the things, to be our new normal. We can't do that anymore. It's not fair to us. It's not fair to our patients."
Elected officials joined the picket line, including State Rep. Tina Liebling of Rochester.
“This is about all of us. This is about our loved ones. This is about our families, our friends, our communities. We need to be listening to the voices of nurses. They are at the bedside,” Liebling said.
Hundreds of nurses also picketed outside Essentia Health in downtown Duluth.
Natasha Thomas, a cardiac nurse at Essentia Health, said she cried on her way home from work late Sunday night. She said the hospital's chronically short staffing problems were exacerbated by the pandemic.
"None of us want to be out here. We want to be inside with our patients. We want to make sure that they're safe. That's our job. That's what we we decided to do with our profession. That's what we love to do,” Thomas said.
Nurses concerned about hospital staffing levels
Union leaders have described staffing levels at hospitals as being at crisis levels following two years of dealing with the pandemic.
Mary Forbes, a registered nurse at Abbott Northwestern, said many of her colleagues have chosen to become travel nurses and that hospital systems have not provided the needed incentives to keep people in place.
Forbes said staffing is the most important issue to her and addressing it would keep her at patients’ bedsides for years to come. “I'm 28 and my back hurts and patients yell at me and their family members yell at me and it's just not sustainable."
Union leaders reiterated that point during a noon news conference Monday. Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, told reporters that the union wants hospitals to have to get majority approval from nurses on a hospital floor before making any staffing changes.
Nurses want the “ability to have some say in the staffing on our floors. We’re being denied that,” Turner said.
What’s next for negotiations
Turner on Sunday told WCCO-TV that some bargaining teams met with hospital management through the weekend, lasting until early Sunday morning. Others held sessions last week.
She noted that at least one of the nurse negotiating teams offered to slightly reduce its demand for a 30 percent wage increase over three years. Hospitals are offering around 10 percent increases over the same time period.
In a statement, the Twin Cities Hospitals Group, which represents many of those impacted by the walkout, said they're disappointed in the nurses' decision to strike. They said nurses should've sought out mediation, and called their wage demands — about thirty percent over three years — unrealistic.
Asked what happens Thursday if the three-day strike ends without a deal, Turner told reporters that nurses would return to work and continue the contract fight, adding the union hoped the three-day walkout would be enough to bring the hospitals back to the bargaining table.
Hospitals say they will maintain high level of care through strike
Multiple hospitals hired temporary nurses to cover staffing schedules during the strike.
Hospital officials said they will continue to accept patients, but said there may be some delays. They're asking people to see their primary care provider, urgent care or use telehealth options when possible. They also said the state health department is monitoring care in their facilities.
In a statement Monday, officials with Allina Health said it “continues to be focused on delivering safe, reliable care” and that “our teams have rescheduled a limited number of non-emergent appointments” to keep up. Allina Health also said “strikes do not benefit anyone” and that it hopes the union will resume negotiations after the strike with the help of a federal mediator.
On its website, St. Luke’s in Duluth said, “We will continue to offer all services and will be fully open for all inpatient, emergency and clinic-based care, although we may reschedule some non-urgent surgeries and procedures. Patients should arrive as scheduled unless they hear differently from their provider.”
The union said these are the hospitals and systems impacted by the strike. Two large Twin Cities hospitals — Regions Hospital in St. Paul and Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis — are not part of the strike.
M Health Fairview system, Twin Cities area
St. Mary's Duluth
St. Mary's Superior
Essentia Moose Lake - Informational picket only
Allina Health, Twin Cities area
Children's St. Paul
HealthPartners, Twin Cities area
St. Luke's, Duluth
North Memorial Health
Watch: Minnesota Nurses Association leaders update reporters at noon press conference
MPR News reporters Dan Kraker and Tim Nelson contributed to this story.
Correction (Sept. 12, 2022): A previous version of the story had an incorrect number of hospitals out on strike. The Essentia hospital in Moose Lake is on informational picket. The story has been updated.