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Striking nurses to vote Monday on new by Idowu Olabode : September 30, 2016, 05:52:28 PM
More than 4,000 striking Allina Health hospital nurses will vote Monday on a contract that provides some stability to the cost and quality of their health insurance going forward, but not the control their union had sought.

After three daylong negotiating sessions, the Minnesota Nurses Association released a statement shortly before 1 a.m. Friday indicating that it would put the contract to a vote but that its negotiating team "is not making a recommendation" whether nurses should accept or reject it.



Allina nurses have voted twice before this year on contract offers, but in both cases the union recommended that they reject them and the results led to a one-week strike in June and the current open-ended strike that has now lasted 26 days.

"This decision is now in the hands of our nurses," said an Allina corporate statement issued just before 2 a.m. "The offer they will vote on represents a true compromise that addresses all the issues raised by the union while offering a fair, respectful transition plan for nurses to the Allina Health core insurance plans."

The proposed three-year contract gives Allina executives their ultimate prize — a phase out of four union-backed health insurance plans that they viewed as too costly to maintain — but offers the nurses some assurances about their alternatives.

The health system has projected $10 million per year in savings by switching the nurses to its three corporate plans, though in defense of this stance it has easily spent more than $40 million on replacement nurses to cover the strikes.

The two most popular union health plans would be retained through 2019 and would remain unchanged, though Allina would provide bonuses to nurses who switched to one of the company's three health plan options in the next two years. Allina also committed to keeping one of its plans, named Allina First because it gives incentives to use Allina doctors and hospitals, unchanged throughout the three-year contract, and to never change its actuarial value by more than 7 percent in any three-year contract period going forward.

The contract proposal also gives nurses 2 percent raises in each of the next three years and a $500 bonus next June as a trade-off for their concessions on health plans.

The vote comes at a pivotal juncture, because striking nurses will temporarily lose their health benefits on Saturday until they return to work. Nurses picketing outside Allina's Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis Friday morning expressed disappointment at the contract proposal and wondered if the health system wanted to test the resolve of striking nurses who are about to lose their health coverage.

"After three days of negotiations, I really thought they would have come out with a contract that we could support," said Shannon Stenson, a critical care nurse, wheeling a stroller around Abbott with her toddler daughter carrying a sign saying My Mommy Loves Her Patients.

The union scheduled meetings with its nurses Saturday to explain the rationale for presenting a contract without a recommendation.

Health insurance has become the primary sticking point in a contract negotiation that started in February. Compromises had been reached in other areas, including a workplace safety assurance by Allina that it would provide 24-hour security staffing in its emergency rooms.

The union also wanted supervisory charge nurses to be free of direct patient assignments, so they could support front-line nurses in caring for their patients, but the contract proposal only calls for a joint nurse-company committee to address the problem.

Nurses for months demanded that they be allowed to keep their union-backed health plans, which trade high premiums for low or no deductibles, arguing that they are at elevated risk of illness and injury due to the hazards of their jobs.

In a 22-hour negotiating session earlier this month, before the current strike, union negotiators agreed to phase out those plans but sought to have control over the company plans to assure that their costs and benefit levels didn't change. Allina did not agree to this request, though, prompting the nurses to go on strike as of Labor Day.

The prolonged negotiations have taken a toll. Allina's cost to bring in replacement nurses during the two strikes easily surpassed $40 million. Striking nurses meanwhile were scrambling to find replacement income — hundreds are working at the Ryder Cup this week — and appealing to the union for hardship funding.

Vote results on Monday will be specific to the Allina hospitals under strike: United in St. Paul, Mercy in Coon Rapids, Unity in Fridley, and Abbott Northwestern and the Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis. That raises the possibility that nurses at one hospital could accept the contract and return to work while nurses at other hospitals could reject it and remain on strike.

Cardiac nurse Eyobe Woldermariam has been providing paid rides via Uber to make income during the strike, noting that he has a wife and three small children and also supports his extended family in Ethiopia. But he didn't see enough compromise in the newest contract offer to support it, even though he already uses an Allina corporate health plan for his family.

"We voted no already," he said, "and this is the same thing."

Source : Star Tribune

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