As their strike against Allina Health enters week four, hospital nurses have found unexpected ways to pay their bills — discovering that their people skills, arm strength and endurance are useful in all kinds of professions.
“We lift 400-pound patients. We wrestle patients who are going through detox,” said Lisa Kielas, who has cobbled together income by helping the local stagehands’ union take down exhibits at the Minneapolis Convention Center, then did some food testing for FPI Testers, then starting giving plasma twice a week at $50 per visit. And starting Tuesday, she will join hundreds of Allina nurses in hospitality roles at the Ryder Cup golf tournament.
The rush to find replacement work has increased despite the hopeful sign of negotiations resuming Tuesday. A federal mediator on Friday ordered both sides back to bargaining for the first time since the strike began on Labor Day. When they last talked, the two sides had reached agreement on most issues, but deadlocked over the amount of control the nurses wanted over the future cost and quality of their health care benefits.
The economic toll since then has emerged in several ways. Allina reported on Monday that 567 of more than 4,800 union nurses have decided to return to work, while the Minnesota Nurses Association reported that some nurses have left Allina for good in frustration.
“It was hard,” said nurse Kim Mattson, who switched from the operating room at Unity Hospital in Fridley to a comparable position at Maple Grove Hospital. “I consider all the people I work with [at Unity] to be family. We were a tight-knit unit in that operating room.”
The prospect of losing their health insurance on Oct. 1 also has pushed striking nurses to temp jobs, while others have turned to the union for support. A union committee met last week to review 200 hardship requests and issued $130,000 in checks.
One applicant had a spouse in cancer treatment and needed money to compensate for lost health benefits, said Mary Turner, union president. Others were young nurses saddled with student loans.
“They’re just as strapped” as veteran nurses with families, she said.
Abbott Northwestern nurse Jennifer Besta received hardship funding during a one-week strike in June and has requested it again for her family, which includes four children. With her husband in school, she is the sole earner.
Temporary nursing jobs were easy to find, but Besta worried about taking one and being committed elsewhere when Allina and the union reach a deal. Gift cards for gas and groceries from the union have helped. And with homecoming on the calendar, fellow nurses raised money to buy one of her daughters a dress, while another nurse enlisted her daughter to do her hair for free.
“My family isn’t up here,” the South Dakota transplant said. “The nurses are my family.”
Allina reports that the average hospital nurse makes $42 an hour. That works out to $87,000 full-time in a year, but few nurses work that much. Two-thirds of Allina’s hospital nurses work between half- and three-quarter time.
Turner said some nurses are their family’s main breadwinner, while others are the household’s secondary earner but work for the good health benefits — which is partly why the nurses have fought to maintain them. The contract dispute initially centered on Allina’s demand to switch nurses from four costly union-backed health plans with low or no deductibles to its corporate health plans.
Some nurses have attended job fairs for Fairview and North Memorial, Turner said, and considered permanent switching to competing hospitals which to date have retained the union’s health plans.
Hanna Gyllen, 26, found temporary work quickly: Her grandparents were the original Al and Alma of the Al and Alma’s supper club and charter boat service on Lake Minnetonka. She and four other nurses are serving drinks and food and tying up charter boats for group tours.
Gyllen said it was a pleasant diversion after the stressful weekend before the strike at Mercy Hospital.
“It is hard work — constant movement,” she said. “Kind of like nursing: You always have something you can be doing.”
Kielas, who works at Abbott in Minneapolis, said she will be working 12-hour shifts during the Ryder Cup, an international golf tournament that is being held this year at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska. She said the tournament reached out to hundreds of nurses for hospitality roles.
Kielas said she looks forward to caring for patients again, but working in other industries has been eye-opening. If negotiators do reach a settlement, she plans to resume her part-time nursing hours that support her family, including two children. But in the future, she hopes to pick up extra shifts with the stagehands instead of extra shifts at the hospital.
“I’m kind of a tomboy,” she said, “but I loved working with that company so much.”