Brainerd nurses at Essentia Health picket, wanting more pay and COVID-19 protection

“We’re expected to take care of patients that have this illness, expected to put our lives in danger for it, but the hospital is not expected to cover us if we get it,” one nurse said. “And we really feel that that’s wrong."

Nurses at Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center conduct an informational picket Monday, Oct. 19, in front of the Brainerd hospital off North Third Street. Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center and the nurses in the Minnesota Nurses Association are negotiating a labor agreement after the previous agreement expired in October 2019. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Signs reading “Cuts Leave Scars,” “Better pay, Nurses will stay!” “Stop the Greed” and “We are Essential to our families too!!” were among the messages held by Brainerd nurses Monday, Oct. 19, as they picketed in front of Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd.

The Minnesota Nurses Association informed Essentia Health last week of its intent to conduct an informational picket 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., which included morning and afternoon employee rallies. The Brainerd nurses in their red Minnesota Nurses Association T-shirts and masks picketed in front of the hospital and walked up and down North Third Street to picket near Washington Street and spread their message, a demand of management for “Care for Caregivers” with COVID-19 protections, pay, and benefits to recruit and retain nurses.

The nurses — about 270 — are in the process of negotiating a labor agreement with Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center, as their previous contract expired in October 2019. Fourteen negotiating sessions have taken place since September 2019. Conversations were paused due to COVID-19 but have resumed. The next session is scheduled Wednesday.

Essentia Health officials had no comment on the picket, but provided a statement from Mike Larson, vice president of operations at Essentia, that read: “Essentia Health received notice that members of the Minnesota Nurses Association planned to hold an informational picket outside St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd on Monday, Oct. 19. It’s important to note that our nurses are not on strike and our hospital is open as usual, providing quality care to our patients and their families. We value the contributions of our skilled and compassionate nurses and respect their right to conduct informational picketing as part of the collective bargaining process. We have measures in place to ensure that our patients, their families, hospital staff and others will have access to our facilities during the informational picketing.”


Essentia officials in an earlier release stated they will continue to negotiate in good faith and they look forward to reaching a mutually beneficial agreement.

Kyle Zelinske, a registered nurse at Essentia Brainerd who spoke on behalf of all the nurses, said the two groups have been negotiating for about 380 days — which included a break when there was a spike in COVID-19 cases and there was a layoff. When the groups came back to the table, the management side made “no movement whatsoever,” Zelinske said of an agreement.

“When we first started negotiating we told them we wanted some parity with the other hospitals in the area, especially with Duluth since it is an Essentia hospital, and their statement to us was that our nurses weren’t worth as much as the nurses in Duluth,” Zelinske said, though he added the statement was not verbatim. “But (management) said we have no desire to pay you what we’re paying other nurses, and that was the beginning of a large, hard fight.

RELATED: Essentia Health announces more layoffs
Another issue, Zelinske said, is workers’ compensation for nurses who may contract COVID-19. In one instance, a nurse had COVID-19 but had to use vacation and sick leave to cover her time off during her recovery.

Zelinske said the governor set up presumptive eligibility for workers’ compensation pay with a COVID-19 positive diagnosis for those in health care. If an employee gets COVID-19, the hospital has to prove that the employee did not get it at work, Zelinske said. He claimed hospitals are not doing it this way and the community thinks they are. He claimed the nurses are told they have to pay for their own COVID-19 tests, including their copayments.

“We’re expected to take care of patients that have this illness, expected to put our lives in danger for it, but the hospital is not expected to cover us if we get it,” Zelinske said. “And we really feel that that’s wrong."

Zelinske pointed out 15% of the people in the country getting COVID-19 right now are health care workers.


“It’s like we’re taking care of everybody but we're not getting any type of health back in this whole fight,” he said. “Hospitals are still making tons of money ... with the bailout money they took and none of it came back down to help any of us out as it should have.”

Zelinske said besides asking for an increase in wages, the nurses are asking for language in the contract to address personal protective equipment for workers in today’s pandemic and any future pandemics. According to Zelinske, the management team didn’t want to discuss this issue during negotiations.

“We’re wondering if it’s not something to discuss right now,” Zelinske said. “We’re sitting with our PPE locked in lock boxes in the hospital. In order to get a mask you have to find the charge nurse on the floor and unlock the box, which makes no sense to us that our contract states right in there that a nurse, if they feel that they need something to care for a patient safely, it’s going to be provided. But it’s been kept under lock and key, and when we asked them how we’re doing on supplies they say we’re doing fine. But we’re still locking it up.”

Essentia Health nurses picket in front of Essentia Health St. Joseph's Medical Center Monday, Oct. 19, in Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Zelinske said there was a group of nurses that helped a COVID-19 patient without the proper protection and they were sent home to be quarantined because they were exposed to the virus.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

Zelinske, who has been at the Brainerd hospital for almost 16 years, said they’ve never picketed before. However, Zelinske said in the past the nurses helped the hospital out by agreeing to no raises for two years and a 1% raise in the third year.


“We went without raises to help them and to come back now to the table and to have them come back at us with lower than what they paid everyone else in the state doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Zelinske said.

Zelinske said the nurses have made reductions to their proposal and are less concerned about parity. However, they want to get closer to the other nurses’ pay, not further apart. Zelinske said there has been a 15% turnover among Brainerd nurses in the past six months and if things continue as they have been, Brainerd could lose close to 30% of its nurses.

Laurie Powers, a registered nurse in Brainerd who is on the negotiating committee, said a lot of people stopped to talk to the nurses during the picket to tell them they support them.

“We do a good job of keeping our patients safe, even though we are short-handed,” Powers said. “There’s a full staff on taking care of our patients, because we need to take care of our community. But apparently, I’m sorry, but Essentia Health, apparently doesn’t want to take care of their nurses so they are not negotiating at all.”

Essentia Health nurses conduct an informational picket Monday, Oct. 19, at Essentia Health St. Joseph's Medical Center. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The rally

Nurses and representatives with the Minnesota Nurses Association had plenty to say during the morning rally.

Mary C. Turner, president of the nurses association and also a COVID-19 intensive care nurse at North Memorial Health Hospital, shared statistics with the nurses at the rally. She said so far across the nation over 230 registered nurses and 1,900 health care workers across have lost their lives to COVID-19.


“We are 10% and 320,000 frontline health care workers have contracted COVID,” Turner said. “We are 10% of the casualties, people. Ten percent and then when we have to come out on the picket lines, to be able to get our shields and our masks and all the proper equipment that we need. I just don’t understand it, folks.

“My understanding is — I heard a little story last night that you had a couple surgeons that donated shields for every single one of the employees here. And yet, somebody called ... and has them locked up in a cupboard somewhere. What is that all about? Every single employee here is important, not just the nurses, the housekeeping and everyone and they should have a shield and they don’t. What is that all about Essentia?”

Turner said the reason for more COVID-19 cases in health care workers across the state is because they are unknowingly taking care of people who have the virus.

Essentia Health nurse Roxane Reabe talks Monday, Oct. 19, during a rally for nurses who were picketing Essentia Health St. Joseph's Medical Center. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Roxane Reabe, a charge nurse in the intensive care unit at the Brainerd hospital, told the group of nurses about a 29-year-old woman who came into the hospital and they didn’t know if she had COVID-19 as she wasn’t tested. Reabe said she took care of her for hours and “her heart coded and we saved her life.”

Reabe said one of the first things she was asked from management after saving this patient’s life was why she didn’t go and get her personal protective equipment. Reabe said at the time this equipment was locked up on a cart and it would have taken her 10 minutes to go get it unlocked and put on. In that time, the patient would have died, she said.

“I thought, ‘This is the thanks we get?’” Reabe said. “We hear every day in these emails coming from the CEO of Essentia of how important we are and what a great job we do. Well, it doesn’t seem like they stand with us and they aren’t standing with the patients and it seems like money is the only factor that they hear. I just want to say that we care about our patients.”


President of the Minnesota Nurses Association Mary C. Turner talks to Brainerd Essentia Health nurses Monday, Oct. 19, during an informational picket. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Quinn Nystrom, who is running to represent the 8th Congressional District, told the crowd of nurses she stands with them. She said the nurses shouldn’t have to demand PPE when working on the frontlines and the equipment should be provided to them.

“You guys are the frontline workers and this whole country depends on people like you who are trying to keep people alive today,” Nystrom said. “We need to fight for you guys. That’s why I stand with you. We also need to make sure that all Essentia nurses are being treated fairly. Just because of our ZIP code doesn’t mean you should be paid less. You need to be paid equally.”

Nystrom said people need to write to the federal government about the seriousness of the pandemic as people are not taking it seriously.

Nystrom’s father Bob Nystrom, a Brainerd School Board member for 16 years, also spoke at the rally.

“I really understand and feel the pain that you are feeling right now in the job that you are doing,” Bob Nystrom said. “I just want you to know that the community will support you. They love you, they respect the job you are doing.

“We are with you, we support you and keep up the good fight, and you will persevere.”


JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at or 218-855-5851. Follow me at on Twitter.

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