The impending strike by 400 psychiatric workers in the Twin Cities underscores the pressures patients are under as patients with complex psychiatric illnesses clog emergency rooms and hospital beds.
Minnesota’s chronic shortage of psychiatric beds has caused hospitals to admit patients in mental crisis to their emergency rooms for hours, days or even weeks. But COVID-19 has increased depression and anxiety in the community, which in turn is putting more pressure on a burned-out hospital workforce, according to workers preparing for a three-day strike next week.
“We’ve already lost too many good workers because of the challenges we face, and we’re ready to strike for the health, safety and dignity of ourselves and our patients,” said Dana Disbrow, a psychiatric fellow at M Health Fairview’s University of Washington Medical Center. Minnesota.
The strike, beginning Oct. 3, includes the U Hospital along with Allina Health’s Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis and Mercy Hospital’s Fridley campus.
Health officials said problems have worsened during the pandemic to increase pressure on hospitals, including a lack of outpatient care. More than 30 percent of Minnesota adults with symptoms of depression and anxiety were unable to access counseling or therapy when they needed it in the 12 months ending October 2021, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Unmet need sent more people in crisis to a hospital with limited capacity. A survey by the Minnesota Department of Health found that on a single day in May, 77 people in need of mental health treatment were waiting in emergency rooms for beds to open — just at Twin Cities area hospitals with psychiatric units.
Hospitals responded with plans to increase psychiatric capacity. Children’s Minnesota is slated to open a pediatric inpatient unit in St. Paul later this fall. And the state health study was part of the approval process allowing Fairview and Acadia Healthcare to build a 144-bed psychiatric hospital on the Bethesda campus in St. Paul. The facility will partially replace the shuttered St. Joseph Hospital in St. Paul, where Fairview operated more than 100 psychiatric beds before closing.
Mental health workers say better pay, benefits and safety guarantees are also needed, given the growing complexity of psychiatric patients being admitted to hospitals. The risk of burnout is evident in the growing number of psychiatric technician jobs in Minnesota. The 402 jobs at the end of 2021 represent 20 percent of all jobs, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
At the same time that it has exacerbated staffing shortages, COVID-19 has also inflamed public sentiment in favor of unions and protections for workers who have faced furloughs and other disruptions during the pandemic.
Allina and Fairview mental health workers voted to join the SEIU Healthcare union in October 2021, but did not reach their first contract even after a one-day strike in May.
SEIU’s latest action comes less than a month after 15,000 Twin Cities and Duluth area nurses went on strike for three days.
Allina said in a statement that it can often take a year to reach contracts with newly organized groups such as mental health professionals. Talks are planned this week and next month to try to reach a deal.
“The strike benefits no one,” Allina said in a statement. “However, we will stand ready to continue to care for our community in the event that no agreement is reached.”
Fairview is developing a “contingency plan” if negotiations fail to prevent a strike, according to a statement from the health system.
“Care will continue to be provided in our hospital mental health units unless an agreement is reached by next week.”