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DULUTH – It came like the storm that had recently passed overhead, a caravan of honking cars and passengers waving signs — "No layoffs Essentia" and "Honk for health care" — to protest the hundreds of job losses at the area's largest employer.

Cars wove around the health system's downtown Duluth campus while some union officials stood on street corners as part of an informational picket Monday afternoon.

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"We don't want to see any layoffs, especially since the [COVID-19] surge hasn't hit our area yet," said United Steelworkers Local 9460 President Deanna Hughes.

Essentia announced last month it would permanently lay off 900 people as revenue dives as a result of pandemic preparations and reduced business. About half of those lost jobs would be in the Twin Ports.

Officials expected about 20% of the layoffs to affect staff in direct patient care, with the rest spread across support services. United Steelworkers, which represents 50,000 health care workers around the country, has both clinical and support staff among its members.

About 300 union members are facing layoffs in the Duluth area, though Hughes said the protest was meant to have a broad scope.

"It affects more than just our members, and it's going to make access for the community that much harder," she said.

Adam Ritscher, who has worked for Essentia since 2005, said he wasn't sure about the future of his own job on Monday afternoon. The union is still working with management on which jobs are being cut and asking for furloughs or other solutions.

Essentia said it has "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 spokesman Louie St. George said in a statement Monday. "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."

Essentia officials said in May that the pandemic has cost the system about $100 million in revenue over the past several months, with more losses expected as the region continues to brace for a COVID-19 surge.

As of Monday, St. Louis County had 118 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 14 deaths. The state's sixth most populous county has been adding on average one confirmed case per day for several weeks, though there has not been a new case confirmed since Friday.

Unlike previously announced administrative leaves affecting another 850 employees, the jobs being eliminated are not expected to return even when the pandemic subsides and especially as more care is delivered remotely.

Health care has been widely expected to be a growing industry in the region for years to come.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496