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Nurses in stalled contract talks sought to increase public pressure on Twin Cities area hospitals Tuesday, warning that burned-out colleagues are poised to leave bedside care if they don't get incentives to stay.

Negotiations have produced little progress on wages and how to compensate nurses after two-plus years of the pandemic. Nurses, working under prior contracts that expired two months ago, accused the hospitals of exploiting their good will to work last-minute shifts and take extra patients to get through the pandemic's peaks.

"We are increasingly told to make do with less and we are pushed to the limit," said Alison Marcanti, a nurse at Allina Health's United Hospital in St. Paul.

The Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) held Tuesday's demonstration outside the McNamara Alumni Center at the University of Minnesota, shortly before Allina Health CEO Lisa Shannon was scheduled to give a lecture on the future of health care. Nurses handed out leaflets to attendees and protested at the entrance until a gas leak postponed the event and several U buildings were evacuated.

Hospital officials indicated concern for the problem of burnout and the urgent need to attract and retain nurses, but said they also must weigh rising costs that ultimately get passed on to patients.

"It is our goal to agree on a contract that honors our nurses, while also prioritizing the health needs of our community so we are able to bring these negotiations to a productive end,'' according to a statement from Minneapolis-based Allina, which was scheduled for an 11th round of talks Tuesday.

Nurse staffing levels are down at all hospitals across the Twin Cities, and the result is partly reflected in MNA membership — down from more than 22,000 in 2019 to 20,619 in 2021, according to the most recent federal filings.

Current negotiations involve about 15,000 nurses, including those in the M Health Fairview and Children's Minnesota hospital systems, as well as Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park and North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale. The total includes inpatient nurses at Essentia Health and St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth.

Delays have emerged as hospitals sought to focus on wages while nurses wanted discussion of other concerns, including staffing levels. While hospitals negotiate individually with their nurses, they have generally offered a 10% increase in total compensation over the next three years. The nurses have sought an increase of about 30% to make the profession more enticing, and improved sick leave, night shift and education reimbursement benefits.

"It has to be done. Otherwise nurses are just going to keep leaving the bedside," said MNA President Mary Turner, an intensive care nurse at North Memorial. The union cited a study in which more than half of nurses nationwide had considered leaving their job in the next year.

In a statement, the Twin Cities Hospital Group, representing all metro area systems other than Allina, called the union's request for a 30% hike "unrealistic, unaffordable and unwise." The group called its proposed pay increase the largest offer in 15 years.

Safety was a key concern underlying the last contract negotiations in 2019, when deals were reached in mid-June after Children's nurses authorized a strike.

But Katie Donner, a nurse at St. John's Hospital in Maplewood, said safety problems have risen as patients become more frustrated amid the pandemic and staffing shortages.

"Imagine what happens to them when they need to wait for care or medications or help to the bathroom," she said. "Our patients are fed up and emotions tend to run higher — some to a point that they are boiling over and impacting doctors, nurses and other staff."

Delays in nurse contract talks have happened before, but a two-month overrun without a contract or strike vote is unusual. In 2016 most hospital systems reached deals on time, but Allina nurses went on two strikes for a combined 44 days in a dispute over health benefits until a contract was reached in October.

Tuesday's announcement included symbolic votes by the nurses of no confidence in the leaders of the Children's Minnesota, M Health Fairview, North Memorial Health and St. Luke's hospitals.