Care workers at 10 Minnesota nursing homes and counting are planning a one-day strike for March 5. About 600 workers across seven facilities first announced plans to strike Tuesday, but that number has grown with union voting on the work stoppage continuing through Thursday.

Participating nurses and support staff are hoping the temporary strike will bolster their push for increased wages, benefits and staffing levels without creating a painfully long pause in care for the facilities’ residents, according to Jamie Gulley, president of the SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa, which represents the striking workers.

The planned strike coincides with labor advocates putting public pressure on a newly created state regulatory board to create a $25 minimum wage for nursing home workers. The striking workers are making similar requests of long-term care industry employers.

“We need a wage that people can live on in order for people to come into the industry and stay,” Gulley told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News Wednesday. “Staffing and wages go hand in hand because people are working doubles, some working 20 to 30 days in a row — it’s really not sustainable and has a huge toll on workers’ families and their lives.” 

While much smaller than a strike of 15,000 Minnesota hospital nurses in 2022, Gulley said the planned March walkout would be the biggest Minnesota nursing home strike of his 22-year career with the union. 

Only about 16% of nursing homes are currently unionized nationally, but some experts have pointed to an increasingly urgent demand for care workers as a sign that labor power could be on the rise in the coming months and years. 

The buck stops where?

Minnesota long-term care operators signaled their own desire to boost staff recruitment and retention by increasing wages earlier this week, but also echoed complaints about inconsistent funding from the state government that will sound all-too familiar to providers across the country. 

Without such funding to bolster the sector, access to eldercare could shrink, according to Toby Pearson, president and CEO of the Care Providers of Minnesota, the state affiliate of the American Health Care Association.

“We’ve always said that there should be safe, accessible settings for seniors and that we should be able to pay higher wages for our caregivers,” Pearson told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News Tuesday. “But if the state doesn’t provide the funding to implement a $25 minimum wage then we’re kind of stuck.”

Pearson confirmed Wednesday that several Care Providers of Minnesota members would be affected by the planned strike. 

Kari Thurlow, president and CEO of nonprofit association LeadingAge Minnesota, said she couldn’t comment on the specifics surrounding any individual strikes but told McKnight’s Wednesday that “we believe that caregiving is an honorable profession, and it’s essential that caregivers are compensated with a living wage.” 

Like Pearson, however, Thurlow stressed the importance of additional state funding to match the demand for higher caregiver wages.

Gulley acknowledged the significance of the state government in the labor dispute, but said the increased pressure on providers was warranted.

“There’s definitely a role for the state both from a funding perspective as well as from a leadership perspective,” he said, “but I think it’s a dodge for the nursing home industry to say they can’t raise pay or address worker concerns absent additional state money. The pattern that we see over and over again is that when the Legislature and the state increase funding for nursing homes, that the vast majority of that funding does not go to caregivers.”

Sector leaders have pointed out that much state funding has been in the form of one-time relief payments that did not permanently address their budgetary restraints.