Psych workers at M Health, Allina strike during Mental Health Awareness Month

Mental health workers picket outside M Health Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis during a one-day strike.

How do you observe Mental Health Awareness Month when the crisis in your workplace continues to worsen?

Over 400 mental health workers in the Twin Cities answered that question yesterday by going on strike for union contracts that address safety concerns and low wages in their industry.

The one-day strike over unfair labor practices brought picket lines to three local hospitals: Allina’s Abbott Northwestern and Unity hospitals and M Health Fairview Hospital, where workers converged for a noon-hour rally with elected officials and other community allies.

Stephanie Stark, a senior mental health coordinator at Allina Health, said members of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa decided to strike to raise awareness of the “historic underfunding and lack of respect for mental health work.”

“It’s time for those in charge to take this crisis seriously,” she said. “This work is too important to be ignored and undervalued.”

Mental health workers joined the SEIU in a wave of organizing campaigns last fall, and they are currently bargaining their first contracts with Allina and M Health.

Union members’ top priorities in those talks are respect for their work, safety protections for workers and patients, and a “pay scale in line with our professional degrees,” Unity Hospital senior mental health coordinator Christy Beach said.

Beach and other union leaders said pay increases are necessary to recruit and retain workers in facilities too often overwhelmed by community needs. On the picket line outside M Health Fairview, several workers carried signs referencing the recent conversion of an ambulance bay at the Masonic Children’s Hospital into a shelter for children awaiting mental or emotional health services.

“James Hereford, what did he get, $3.9 million last year?” M Health psych associate Brian McIntosh said, calling out M Health’s CEO by name. “Having these kids in this ambulance bay is not right, and that’s what we’re about to change.”

Workers also described an uptick in violence and safety issues. McIntosh said one co-worker burned through her paid time off after suffering a cracked rib on the job, and another told him the post-traumatic stress from a workplace assault still jolts her awake at night.

Despite dozens of bargaining sessions with the health systems, workers’ safety and wage demands have fallen largely on deaf ears, prompting a near-unanimous vote to authorize the strike before Mental Health Awareness Month ends.

“We are showing those in charge that we are serious about making change in our industry,” Stark said.

Several elected officials joined the picket lines and the rally at M Health Fairview. State Sen. Erin Murphy (D-St. Paul), a registered nurse, told mental health workers that by advocating for themselves, they are advocating for their communities.

“It is up to you, in the end, to take care of the patient,” Murphy said. “It’s not the people in the corner office that are doing that work. It’s you, and you need to be protected and staffed in such a way that you can do your jobs with skill and care.”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, when advocates push for increased support for the 1 in 5 Americans who live with mental illness or a substance-use disorder, and seek to reduce the stigma associated with them, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

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