Nurses at 12 hospitals in Minnesota's Twin Cities late last week rejected contracts that would have given them an 18% wage increase, setting the stage for a possible June 1 strike that could be a serious blow to the area's hospitals.
The hospitals and the nurses, represented by the Minnesota Nurses Association, are expected to continue negotiating in the wake of last week's vote.
"I think this vote is emphatic, and I think it underscores the nurses' determination to bring this problem to light, that patients are at risk in our hospitals today," said Jan Rabbers, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Nurses Association.
Voter turnout exceeded 80%, she said.
A work stoppage of the 7,800 nurses could not begin until June 1, when the contracts expire, and the nurses would have to give 10 days' notice before calling a strike.
If there were a strike, it would be the first in the area since 1984, when more than 6,000 nurses protested seniority issues in their contracts.
This time around, nurses rejected contracts at Abbott Northwestern Hospital and the Phillips Eye Institute, both in Minneapolis; Bethesda Rehabilitation Hospital in St. Paul; Children's Hospitals and Clinics, which has campuses in Minneapolis and St. Paul; Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina; Fairview-University Medical Center-Riverside Campus in Minneapolis; Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids; Methodist Hospital Healthsystem Minnesota in Saint Louis Park; St. John's Hospital in Maplewood; St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul; and United Hospital in St. Paul.
Nurses voted to approve a contract at just one of the hospitals involved in the joint negotiations, North Memorial Health Care in Robbinsdale, Minn., thanks to an 11th-hour offer the hospital made to add an additional 1.1% wage increase above what the other hospitals were offering.
"We're still hoping we can settle this before the deadline without any disruption to patient care," said Gloria O'Connell, a spokeswoman for Minneapolis-based Allina Health System, which owns three of the hospitals where contracts were rejected.
The nurses had asked for a 30% wage increase, as well as caps on health insurance premiums and bonuses for senior nurses.
Shireen Gandhi-Kozel, assistant vice president of the Minnesota Hospital and Healthcare Partnership, which represents 142 hospitals in the state, said the 18% wage increase over three years was a very strong offer and that Minnesota nurses are some of the highest-paid in the nation.
"We are still committed to using the next two weeks to do all we can to reach a resolution that satisfies the nurses and the community," she said.
In the meantime, the 12 hospitals have already contracted to bring in agency nurses in case there is a strike and have also made arrangements with the area's five nonunion hospitals and other hospitals within their systems to possibly shift patients to other facilities if the need arises. Still, some elective surgeries may have to be postponed if there is a strike, Gandhi-Kozel said.