ST. PAUL -- Nurses, physician assistants and other caregivers in the union representing 1,800 HealthPartners workers voted overwhelmingly to commence a labor strike if agreement cannot be reached within the next 10 days on benefits, wages and cost-cutting measures.

With 95% in favor, the SEIU Healthcare Minnesota members at HealthPartners voted Thursday, Feb. 6, to approve a seven-day “Unfair Labor Practices” picket that would begin Feb. 19 at the health care provider’s clinics. The existing labor contract, which spans 80 job titles but does not include doctors, expired Jan. 31.

SEIU organizers announced the results of their 15-hour vote on Friday morning outside the HealthPartners Neuroscience clinic in St. Paul. The number of voting members was not disclosed.

“We’re hoping that they come back to the table,” said Anna Grimes, a lab technician and 30-year HealthPartners employee who has been active in contract negotiations.

Organizers with OPEIU Local 12, the Office and Professional Employees International Union, said their 1,200 HealthPartners members would be encouraged to honor the picket line, which could bring the total number of striking workers to 3,000.

Health Partners responds

Bloomington-based HealthPartners issued an unsigned statement to the media on Friday calling the vote announcement “disappointing. We value our SEIU-represented colleagues and are grateful for the work they do to help improve the health and well-being of our patients. That’s why the proposal we put forth would ensure they maintain market-leading benefits.”

A federal mediator has been part of the contract negotiating process, “and it will be up to the mediator to call both parties back to the table,” the statement reads.

HealthPartners, which maintains 30 clinic locations across the Twin Cities, closed its St. Paul-based home care unit at the end of January and is trimming some 300 pharmacy jobs throughout its network, on top of cutting several dozen administrative staff.

Kate Lynch, a nurse and member of the SEIU bargaining team, said workers have been offered wage increases that do not keep up with inflation — 2 percent in the first year, 2 percent in the second year and 1.5 percent in the third year of the three-year contract — on top of pricy changes to their two health insurance options.

Currently, HealthPartners workers do not pay copays for their “Classic” plan, except in the case of emergency room visits that do not lead to hospitalization. “Now they want copays on hospital outpatient, ER visits, any of our office visits,” Grimes said.

For a “Choice” health plan, premiums and copays would both increase, Grimes said.

HealthPartners officials, in the company statement, called the benefits changes modest and intended to “encourage our colleagues to get care in high-quality, more affordable settings. We believe this is a fair and reasonable proposal, especially given the financial headwinds facing the health care industry.”

Overtime, which is currently paid after 37K hours, would also change, Lynch said, so that overtime rates would not kick in until a worker had reached 40 hours.

Founded in 1957 as a cooperative, the nonprofit health care organization operates eight hospitals, 55 primary care clinics, 22 urgent care locations and numerous specialty practices in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

That includes Regions Hospital in downtown St. Paul, the HealthPartners Neuroscience Center on Phalen Boulevard, the Park Nicollet clinics and TRIA orthopedic centers, though a labor strike would be limited to clinic sites. HealthPartners employs roughly 26,000 workers.

HealthPartners officials have attributed recent cuts to declining federal reimbursement for Medicare-eligible services, as well as changes in the types of Medicare plans on the market. Consumer preferences have also changed to favor larger-scale pharmacy operations with drive-through options and later hours, they said.

In a written statement, SEIU said HealthPartners CEO Andrea Walsh received over $2 million in pay last year while the company earned “a record-breaking $7 billion in revenue.”

Said Lynch, “She gave herself a $600,000 increase from 2017 to 2018.”