St. Luke’s confirms 7 layoffs so far, reductions in hours; Essentia weighs options

The moves come after a statewide stop of nonessential procedures and fewer visits to clinics amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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St. Luke's hospital as seen from the air on March 1, 2017. (News Tribune file photo).

St. Luke's has laid off seven employees and is reducing hours for others after Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz ordered the state to halt all non-essential surgeries and procedures and clinic traffic has fallen as Minnesotans are advised to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On top of that, the Duluth hospital and clinic system is also asking employees to volunteer to reduce hours where there are "decreases in demand," St. Luke's President and CEO Kevin Nokels said in a statement to the News Tribune.

St. Luke's is also trying to balance decrease in demand with an expected surge in patients with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus.

"As we plan and prepare for the expected surge and 'all hands on deck,' we must also be fiscally responsible by managing our staffing to volumes and patient needs," Nokels said.

Nokels noted that demand for some of its services, like its hotline and eCare, are increasing and some employees are being reassigned to those areas.


"It is also our intention to welcome back the employees who were laid off once the pandemic subsides and patient services return to pre-pandemic levels," Nokels said.

Pete Boyechko, a St. Luke's nurse and co-chair of the Minnesota Nurses Association union, said there hadn't been any layoffs affecting any MNA-represented employees, but said some "casual nurses" — nurses who don't have a set schedule — represented by the union have been told their services are no longer needed.

While Boyechko said he supports a reduction in clinic appointments and halting elective procedures, St. Luke's hasn't shared what its plans are for affected nurses despite the union's requests for information.

"What we would like to know is: If we're doing layoffs because these elective areas are not performing procedures, we don't need the people, the nurses, the techs, the folks that run those areas there. We don't need them here right now — what is the process for recall? Are we going to be able to reallocate them into areas where they can help in the surge (of COVID-19 patients)? ... We just haven't gotten any responses on that," Boyechko said.

Meanwhile, Essentia, Duluth's largest employer, would not confirm if any layoffs had taken place as of Tuesday afternoon.

"We are continuing to assess our operations daily during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue our mission of making a healthy difference in people’s lives," an Essentia spokesperson said in an emailed statement to the News Tribune. "Aside from measures we’ve already taken for the welfare of our patients, staff and the communities we serve, we have no other changes to announce."

Essentia Health’s Dr. Jon Pryor, the East Market director, told reporters at a news conference last week that Essentia was considering furloughs, but that "everybody’s good throughout this week."

Rick Fuentes, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Nurses Association, said none of its union-represented members at Essentia had been laid off as of Tuesday. He said union representatives in a meeting with Essentia management Tuesday were told the health system "may have to consider layoffs" of nurses.


Fuentes said he expects layoffs at most Minnesota hospitals and clinics after Walz's announcement to stop elective procedures.

The governor's emergency order requires "all nonessential or elective surgeries and procedures, including non-emergent or elective dental care, that utilize (personal protective equipment) or ventilators, must be postponed indefinitely."

The United Steelworkers, which represents health care employees throughout Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin, did not immediately respond to a call from the News Tribune asking if any of its members were laid off.

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Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at or 218-723-5332.
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