Hundreds of nurses from all 50 states have applied to work in Minnesota as part of Allina Health’s plan to keep its Twin Cities hospitals open if its regular nurses carry out a threat to go on strike this Sunday.
As many as 4,800 unionized nurses plan to strike for seven days, starting Sunday at 7 a.m., but Allina officials said they need to recruit just 1,400 replacements to get through the week.
The number and qualifications of the replacement nurses to date should allow Allina to maintain full schedules of surgeries, baby deliveries, emergency room treatments and all other forms of care at three hospitals — Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis, United in St. Paul and Mercy in Coon Rapids, said Sara Criger, the president of Mercy Hospital, who is leading Allina’s strike planning.
“Where we have a neuro ICU, we’re able to get neuro ICU-trained and qualified nurses,” Criger said. “We’re comfortable with the talent pool that we’re getting.”
Unity Hospital in Fridley will operate at a “minimal level” during the strike, she said, noting that surgery and inpatient volumes have been declining there already.
Replacement nurses are expected to start arriving Friday and Saturday for training.
The Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) on June 8 formally announced its intention to strike, two days after Allina hospital nurses rejected a three-year contract offer that would have phased out their union-backed health benefits. The union vote tally wasn’t publicly announced, but MNA leaders said it exceeded the two-thirds necessary to simultaneously reject the contract offer and authorize a strike.
The last chance to prevent a walkout might have passed Monday, when a federal mediator called Allina and union negotiators back to the table but failed to broker a deal.
Now, Allina has financial obligations to the staffing companies it hired and to the replacement nurses.
“We do pass a point where a significant commitment of time, resources and attention of our leadership team is devoted to this,” said Allina spokesman David Kanihan. “We are always ready to negotiate. The strike doesn’t start until the strike starts … but we have to be prepared.”
Figures from the Minnesota Board of Nursing indicate the health system is getting much of the help it needs from nurses already licensed in other states.
In May and June of last year, the board received 721 applications from licensed nurses in other states seeking to work in Minnesota. But this year, from May 1 to noon Wednesday, the board received 1,773 such reciprocity requests. A third of the nurses are coming from Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Texas.
Allina plans to have nursing assistants and other caregivers bridge the transition when union nurses leave their posts early Sunday morning and the replacement nurses take over patient care at 7 a.m., Criger said. However, some patients who are severely ill or in intensive care will receive a direct handoff from union nurses to their replacements, under an agreement between Allina and union leaders.
“Our nurses will handle it professionally and with all due respect to the care of the patient,” said union spokesman Rick Fuentes.
Allina hired multiple staffing agencies, including HealthSource Global Staffing, which in May was offering $400 bonuses to nurses who signed up to work before the strike was declared. Allina will pay the nurses’ travel and hotel expenses as well.
Kanihan declined to estimate how much extra Allina will spend to maintain patient care during the strike, but said it will depend on how many regular nurses opt to work during the week. He added that hiring temporary nurses isn’t unusual for a hospital; it is often done to cover busy periods.
Any spending on a strike is bitter news for MNA nurses, who are being told that they need to give up their union health plan options because they are outdated and too costly.
Allina has projected it will save $10 million per year by switching its nurses to its company health plans, which provide more financial incentives than the union plans to use cheaper forms of care — such as generic drugs instead of brand names.
Union officials counter that the company health plans aren’t as comprehensive or attractive for nurses, whose jobs leave them prone to illness and workplace injuries. Picketing outside the four general hospitals and the Phillips Eye Institute, which also is involved in the negotiations, will take place daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.