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United Steelworkers Union pickets Essentia Health over layoffs

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DULUTH, MN -- It was bumper to bumper traffic Downtown Duluth Monday afternoon.

A car caravan started at Miller Hill mall and made its way to the Essentia Health St. Mary's building on third street.

The group was supporting the 900 Essentia workers who learned in May they were permanently laid off.

It's a move hospital leaders blamed on COVID-19 financial problems.

"Our goal today is to get their attention," said President of Local 9460 United Steelworkers, Deanna Hughes.

The United Steelworkers Union represents a total of 2,069 Essentia employees who work in the janitorial, nursing, and front desk areas of the hospital across the hospital's entire system.

USW reps said Monday none of their members were laid off but they still wanted to show their support.

"We would like to see no-layoffs at all," said Hughes.

Todd Schmitz with SEIU Healthcare made the day trip from St. Paul to show his support.

"Healthcare workers are essential workers and they should be rewarded with things like hero pay, not being let go," Schmitz said.

Schmitz represents nine Essentia employees in the Brainerd area who were laid off.

"We have dietary aids in the kitchen and we have rehab aids," said Schmitz.

Hughes fears if Essentia continues to lay off its workers, access to quality care if and when the COVID-19 surge hits, will be difficult to find.

"As we all know the surge hasn't hit yet for the COVID virus and when it does Essentia is going to need our members," said Hughes.

Essentia Health responded to Monday's car caravan saying:

"We value every one of our colleagues. That’s what makes the decision to reduce our workforce as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic so difficult. We have tried to be as transparent as possible with all of our stakeholders while navigating significant declines in patient volume and revenue. We have followed the proper protocol laid out in union contracts with respect to our recent workforce reduction. Essentia is doing everything possible to make sure we are here to make a healthy difference in the lives of our patients not only for an expected influx of COVID cases but well into the future. Our mission and our values are what’s at the heart of these difficult decisions."

The Essentia Health layoffs are across the entire Essentia system. Fifty-five percent of them are in the Twin Ports area, the rest are in Brainard, Fargo and Detroit Lakes.

Lyanne Valdez

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