DULUTH — Members of Essentia Health's largest employee union took to the streets Monday, June 1, to challenge the health system's plan to lay off 900 workers.

A caravan of vehicles made its way from the Miller Hill Mall to Essentia's downtown campus, where workers displayed signs and called for the employer to reverse course on plans to eliminate approximately 6% of its overall workforce amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The informational picket was organized by United Steelworkers Local 9460, which represents doctors, nurses, technicians, housekeepers and many other job classifications at more than a dozen Essentia locations in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin.

Adam Ritscher, left, holds a sign as workers from Essentia walk behind him along East Third Street during the United Steelworkers Local 9460 car caravan and informational picket Monday, June 1. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Adam Ritscher, left, holds a sign as workers from Essentia walk behind him along East Third Street during the United Steelworkers Local 9460 car caravan and informational picket Monday, June 1. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

"We are very disappointed with how Essentia has chosen this uncertain time to reduce staff when our families and communities are most vulnerable," union Vice President Adam Ritscher wrote in a recent update to members. "This is not a fight we wanted, nor one that we picked, but we will fight back rather than accept layoffs."

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Essentia has said the permanent layoffs are a necessary part of a cost-savings plan aimed at saving approximately $50 million annually. The health system reported losing $100 million between March and April as elective surgeries and many other operations were halted due to the pandemic.

"It’s important to note that this is not a strike and our facilities will be open as usual, providing quality care to our patients," Essentia spokesperson Louie St. George III said in a statement Monday. "We have measures in place to ensure that our patients and staff will have access to our facilities during the picketing. We respect our colleagues’ right to free speech and the union’s right to engage in informational picketing."