At this time most years, Valerie Johnson and her husband would be enjoying the afterglow and indigestion of three or four trips to the Minnesota State Fair. But not this year.
Food on a stick is just one of life’s pleasures that the two Allina Health nurses sacrificed as they prepared for a strike that began Monday and whose duration is anyone’s guess.
“Every time somebody said, ‘Hey, let’s do this,’ we were like, ‘Mmm, no,’ ” Johnson said. “And Target has a way of making you spend more than you need to. So I’ve tried to stay away.”
The immediate loss of income could be a pinch for many of the 4,800 nurses who went on strike for the second time this summer in a prolonged contract dispute with Allina over health benefits. Nurses picketing at five Allina hospitals on Monday described a variety of survival strategies, from deferred mortgage and car payments to second jobs in nursing or other careers to moving back in with parents.
But it’s a particular blow when the entire household income for a family comes from nursing. And Johnson and her husband — mental-health nurses at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis — aren’t alone.
Katie Paitich and her husband, both nurses at United Hospital in St. Paul, are striking despite the expenses of raising two boys. “This is our entire life we have put on the line here for the cause,” she said.
Financial wherewithal is always a concern for striking workers against an employer with deeper pockets. While Allina spent $20 million on temporary staffing for the nurses’ seven-day strike in June, it has cash on hand to stay open about 200 days without additional revenue. And its leaders have said they are willing to take a short-term financial hit in exchange for the long-term savings of moving nurses onto more financially advantageous health plans.
“Its about setting up this organization to be able to care for our communities for the long-term,” said Allina spokesman David Kanihan.
Allina’s demand over seven months of negotiations has been to move its hospital nurses out of four union health plans to its corporate health plans, which actually have lower premiums but come with higher deductibles and copays designed to ratchet down health care spending.
Union officials fought that move initially, but agreed in talks during the weekend to surrender the four union health plans over time in exchange for some authority to preserve the value and benefit levels of the corporate plans. Allina leaders ultimately decided the union was asking for too much control over its health plans and halted a 22-hour negotiating session at 6 a.m. Saturday.
Paitich said the temporary loss of family income is worrisome but worthwhile because the switch to Allina health plans could result in bigger deductibles and cost-sharing whenever her family needs medical care.
“It’s a pay cut,” she said. “A huge pay cut.”
How long the nurses will remain on strike is unclear, but 1,500 replacements have been hired to work about two weeks at least. Other comparable nursing strikes in the Twin Cities area lasted 21 days in 2001 and 38 days in 1984.
The union has amassed a financial aid fund of $4.3 million that nurses can tap for support if they demonstrate that the strike has caused a hardship.
Johnson and her husband, Adrian Strinmoen, have been planning for the hardships for months. Johnson serves on the union’s bargaining team, and said she saw last winter that these talks were going to be difficult.
But while she will remain jobless so she can be available for future contract talks, her husband is applying for permanent nursing jobs elsewhere.
“He’s been at Abbott for 19 years,” she said. “This is big. We never, ever planned on going anywhere else, looking anywhere else.”
Turns out, marriage between nurses isn’t uncommon, given the long shifts and the chance that nurses might share a glance across the nursing station, the satisfaction of helping a patient or relaxing at a bar after work.
Johnson and Strinmoen worked on the same child psychiatry unit before their marriage, but first connected at a happy hour outing with friends. Now, the couple share the financial pain — but also the understanding of the job and why they are striking.
“I’m most concerned about the other nurses,” Johnson said. “I’ve had a long enough career that I can handle this. I’m mostly concerned about the other nurses. How do we hold up their spirits and make sure their kids are fed and their house payments are made?”