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Minneapolis Children's Hospital nursing assistant Sarah Landis says she can't afford health insurance coverage for her family

Minneapolis Children's Hospital nursing assistant Sarah Landis says she can't afford health insurance coverage for her family

Sarah Landis has worked as a nursing assistant for three years at Minneapolis Children's Hospital. But the married mother of two says she doesn't make enough money to provide health insurance coverage for her own family. "It's scary that I work in health care and I can't even afford the premiums because it would be a third of my income," says Landis.

Such scenarios are at the heart of a labor dispute currently simmering between roughly 3,300 workers—mostly housekeepers, nursing assistants, and food service workers— and five area hospital chains, collectively known as the Twin Cities Hospital Group. Since March 10, the workers, who are represented by Service Employees International Union Local 113, have been working without a labor contract. The affected hospital chains are Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, HealthEast Care System, Fairview Health Services, North Memorial Health Care, and Park Nicollet Health Services.

In March, Local 113 settled with Allina Hospitals & Clinics on a new three-year contract for its roughly 2,500 workers at six area hospitals. But the Twin Cities Hospital Group walked away from negotiations rather than accede to the union's demands. The two sides met last Friday for the first time in three months, but little progress was made.

The primary stumbling block is over health care costs. Workers want a cap on co-pays and deductibles throughout the life of their next three-year contract. Otherwise these costs can continue to tick upward, without limits, on a yearly basis. Currently the hospitals cover 70 percent of family plans and 85 percent of individual coverage.

Julie Schnell, president of Local 113, says that many workers are already going without health insurance because they can't keep up with the spiraling costs. "It's been that bad for many of our members and will continue to get worse unless we figure out how to get this addressed with the hospitals," she says.

Local 113 members are also demanding a greater say in how their hospitals are operated. The new contract with Allina specifies that the two parties will work together to reduce service costs and improve employee benefits, and that the company won't interfere with organizing drives.

The union is seeking a similar agreement with the Twin Cities Hospital Group. Lori Theim-Busch, a medical technician at North Memorial Medical Center, claims that management often makes poor decisions without consulting workers. For instance, earlier this year the hospital decided to reduce electrocardiogram staffing from two employees to one. "We feel the quality has been drastically reduced because of that," says Theim-Busch, who has worked at North Memorial for 20 years. "If we could have had a say in that, it wouldn't have happened."

The dispute has occasionally gotten nasty. Both sides have filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the other of violating federal labor laws. At the end of April, union members delivered a petition to the hospital group rejecting its final offer.

The hospitals have retaliated by refusing to continue removing union dues from employee paychecks, meaning that they must be collected manually. They also accuse Local 113 of denying its members the opportunity to vote on the proposed contract. "Secret ballot elections are the norm in most unions," the group says in a statement released to City Pages. "They are the practical way that unions can best determine whether a contract offer should be accepted. Our employees deserve a chance to decide for themselves on the offer."

The hospitals insist that the contract currently on the table is more than fair. They note that it would increase wages by 11 percent over three years and boost the percentage of coverage for family health insurance plans from 70 to 75 percent.

Landis, the uninsured nursing assistant, is not impressed. "What the hospital offered us, it's just not acceptable," she says. "Health insurance is going to go through the roof and it's just going to eat up the wage increase."

If progress in negotiations is not made soon, talk will turn to the possibility of a strike. "Certainly there have been discussions," confirms Schnell. "Our members will decide that question when it feels like there are no other options available to them."