Allina Health hospital nurses returned to work without incident Sunday morning after a seven-day strike, and both sides remain uncertain where contract talks are headed.

Allina President and CEO Dr. Penny Wheeler went to United Hospital in St. Paul for the 7 a.m. shift change between replacement nurses and union members, and she came away impressed: "Everyone was professional, compassionate and focused on the patients," she said.

Rick Fuentes, a spokesman for the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA), agreed that the nurses' return went "pretty smoothly," and he said they were eager to return to the bargaining table. Last week, no one made a move to restart talks as thousands of nurses walked picket lines at five Allina hospitals.

When negotiations will resume remains uncertain, but Wheeler expressed hope Sunday the two sides could get together "maybe as soon as this week."

"We very much desire to get back to the bargaining table as soon as possible, and we're working to make that happen," Allina spokesman David Kanihan said. He declined to elaborate further.

Allina wants the nurses to switch from their union-protected health benefits to its lower-cost employee health plans.

Fuentes said he hopes that any move by Allina to restart bargaining includes a willingness on its part to discuss more than the health-insurance stalemate. The union also has safety and staffing concerns that must be addressed, he said.

The 4,800 union nurses were replaced last week by 1,400 nurses recruited from around the country. Inpatient floors at all but Unity Hospital were said to be at usual summertime levels of activity. At Unity, Allina canceled elective surgeries and closed some recovery floors.

For Sunday's 7 a.m. shift, Allina called back 100 percent of the nurses at Mercy and Abbott Northwestern hospitals, and 93 percent at United, Kanihan said. At Unity, the initial callback was about 65 percent, said Kanihan, who attributed it to last week's "rampdown" of operations.

"As the day goes on … that number will undoubtedly change," he added.

Fuentes said he heard from MNA members that more nurses were being called in as the day progressed. He cited it as a reminder of the union's desire to boost staffing and of the need for the two sides to "talk about it at the table sooner than later."

Fuentes was at Abbott Northwestern at 7 a.m. when the replacement nurses and union members crossed paths, and "not a word was said between them," he said. The MNA nurses handled it "extremely professionally," and they are happy, he added, to be back taking care of their patients.

Staff writer Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109