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Nurses, lab techs and other caregivers at HealthPartners clinics voted to conduct a seven-day protest strike, beginning Feb. 19, if their demands regarding health care benefits aren't met.

Announcing vote results Friday morning, leaders of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota said that HealthPartners wants its clinic workers to accept steep cuts in health benefits even though the health system is posting strong revenue.

"Over four months of bargaining, HealthPartners has insisted on harmful cost-shifting and cuts to our benefits while offering a measly wage increase that doesn't keep up with inflation," said Kate Lynch, a licensed practical nurse who has worked at HealthPartners for 31 years and is part of the SEIU bargaining team.

The contract for nearly 1,800 nurses and other HealthPartners clinic workers expired Jan. 31. After a Thursday vote in which 95% of workers backed a strike, SEIU delivered a required minimum 10-day notice to HealthPartners on Friday. The job action involves HealthPartners medical and dental clinics, primarily in the east metro, but not any Park Nicollet clinics the organization acquired through a merger in 2013.

HealthPartners responded that its contract proposal would still give workers above-average benefits when compared with national benchmarks and local competitors, but it would steer them via financial incentives to lower-cost providers when appropriate.

"We believe this is a fair and reasonable proposal, especially given the financial headwinds facing the health care industry," the organization said in a statement.

As scheduled, the strike would come at a peak time of business — at the crest of the flu season and when renewed 2020 benefits have many people scheduling clinical and dental services.

HealthPartners spokesman David Martinson didn't provide details of how the system would get through the week if a strike were to occur, but he said "we have a plan in place to ensure [patients] continue to receive high-quality care."

U.S. Nursing, a national strike-nurse staffing agency, currently lists the need for nurses to work up to 10 days to cover a strike in Minnesota, though it doesn't specify whether it is recruiting for the HealthPartners walkout.

HealthPartners has avoided the labor strife in recent years between metro hospitals and their nurses — including two strikes in 2016 by Twin Cities hospital nurses represented by the Minnesota Nurses Association — because its hospital nurses are not unionized. But the same issue, the cost of health benefits, that motivated that hospital nursing strike four years ago is the key dispute between HealthPartners and its clinic workers.

HealthPartners also is negotiating with cleaning staff and others represented by SEIU Local 26, which may vote on Saturday to strike as well.

Lynch said her union opted for a seven-day strike because that would be enough time to make an impact on HealthPartners. The negotiations involve nurses, physician assistants, dental hygienists, midwives and almost all caregivers at HealthPartners clinics other than doctors.

While HealthPartners is growing and reported $7 billion in revenue last year, the health system, like others in the Twin Cities, has made cuts in response to looming financial pressures.

The system recently announced it was closing a home care service and 30 retail pharmacies.

SEIU's strike notice listed 40 potential picket sites, including some that don't have workers involved in negotiations. They include HealthPartners' specialty centers in St. Paul, its clinic on the University of Minnesota campus, its IT offices on the Best Buy campus in Richfield, its west campus in St. Louis Park and Regions Hospital.

The last negotiating session was Feb. 1 under the supervision of a federal mediator. No new talks are scheduled.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744