Workers at Allina Mental Health Hospital strike over safety and benefits

More than 130 hospital psychiatric workers went on strike at Allina Health on Monday, a year to a month after unionizing in an effort to improve benefits and workplace safety.

Stephanie Stark, senior mental health coordinator, said the strike was necessitated by inaction on workers’ demands for pay that matches their college-level education, union-protected benefits and security “that recognizes the unique challenges of our position’.

“There’s an awful lot that Alina doesn’t care about,” Stark said during a walkout outside Alina’s Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. “But if they’re going to hire and keep good employees, they’re going to have to start looking at settling the contract with the benefits and safety protections we deserve.”

The three-day strike by workers represented by SEIU Healthcare comes after months of failed negotiations to reach a first contract. Workers also picketed the former Unity Hospital in Fridley, which became a major inpatient mental health provider after Allina merged it with Mercy Hospital in 2017.

Alina said in a written statement that mental health care continues at both hospitals and appointments will be held as scheduled unless patients contact them directly to request rescheduling. The Minneapolis-based health system added that worker safety is a priority and that the two sides have already agreed to several safeguards.

“Although we have reached an agreement with the union on most non-economic issues, including many workplace safety issues, the union continues to push for wage and benefit increases that are unrealistic and unsustainable at a time when Minnesota’s health systems are facing significant financial challenges,” the statement said.

The workers are seeking a 15 percent salary increase in the first three years of the contract, along with scheduled salary increases based on years of experience. Protections sought include exempting pregnant workers from caring for patients who have been violent and peer support for workers who have been physically or verbally assaulted during their shifts.

Stark, who has worked in mental health at Abbott for almost 10 years, picketed with her newborn swaddled to her chest. Nurses helped her avoid particularly dangerous shifts during pregnancy, but she said others were not afforded that protection when staffing levels were low.

“We just really wanted something in our contract to give us that protection,” she said.

A planned strike at M Health Fairview Hospitals was called off last week after mental health workers reported progress in negotiations with the health system.

The demands in the contract echo those of 15,000 nurses from the Twin Cities and Duluth, many of whom walked the exact same sidewalks a month earlier during their three-day strike. Contract negotiations between seven health systems and nurses represented by the Minnesota Nurses Association resumed after that strike and have yet to reach any deals.

The picketing workers said there was a growing shortage of psychiatrists and mental health coordinators. Non-licensed workers with advanced degrees work under the supervision of a nurse to provide hands-on care and emotional support to patients in emergency departments and inpatient psychiatric units.

Eric Linde said he’s been attacked and “hit enough” as a mental health coordinator for more than 30 years, but that he still loves the challenges of working with this group of patients. He said he is concerned that current safety guarantees and pay levels are not enough to retain and hire enough workers and maintain safe staffing levels.

“I think things have changed in the last four or five years,” he said.

At the end of 2021, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development reported 402 vacancies for psychiatric technicians — about 20% of that workforce in the state.

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