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Union's billboards hope to stop layoffs at Essentia Health

Essentia Health says it plans to layoff 900 health care workers.

Billboards in the Duluth area are the latest effort to stop massive layoffs planned at Essentia Health

The United Steelworkers Local 9460, which represents health care workers in the Northland, has been detailing its efforts to prevent Essentia Health from laying off hundreds of health care workers on Facebook since late May.

That's when Essentia Health said it would lay off 900 people (6 percent of its workforce) across the region due to hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, noting a drop in patient volumes contributed to a loss of about $100 million.

Two billboards that say "Essentia Health putting wealth over health like nowhere else" went up in Duluth this week, and the union says more are coming. According to the Duluth News Tribune, one billboard is along Interstate 35 near West Duluth and the other is on Rice's Point. 

In a statement to BMTN about the billboards, Essentia Health said: 

"As with other health care organizations across the country, we have had to make difficult decisions to offset significant declines in patient volumes, which resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. These include placing hundreds of our colleagues on administrative leave; flexing hours; reducing physician and executive leader compensation; scaling back services where demand has decreased; and reducing our workforce.

"We value every one of our colleagues. That’s what has made these decisions so tough. Yet we have tried to be as transparent as possible with all of our stakeholders while navigating this challenging situation. Specific to the United Steelworkers Local 9460, we are honoring what’s been negotiated by both sides and following agreed-upon language from the contract that details how we will implement a workforce reduction.

"Essentia Health is doing everything possible to ensure we are here to provide high-quality patient care well into the future."

The union says it has been in talks with Essentia since the pandemic started, and when it was informed of the looming layoffs, the union said it would fight them. 

"We are very disappointed with how Essentia has chosen this uncertain time to reduce staff when our families and communities are most vulnerable. This is not a fight we wanted, nor one that we picked, but we will fight back rather than accept layoffs," USW Local 9460 said in a May 21 blog post on its website

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USW Local 9460 Vice President Adam Ritscher posted on Facebook that in early June, Essentia began laying off staff but they're determined to keep fighting to stop the layoffs. 

According to posts on the union's Facebook page, it is frequently meeting with Essentia Health, and it is working to get the community involved in the fight. 

Earlier this month, it held a health care workers car caravan that attracted about 120 people and made noise throughout downtown Duluth. 

And on June 27, it will host an informational picket in downtown Spooner, Wisconsin (a site affected by the layoffs), hoping community members will come out to support the union's efforts. 

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