Members of Essentia Health's largest employee union took to the streets Monday 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 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.

Essentia officials "value every one of our colleagues," spokesman Louie St. George III said, making the layoffs "difficult."

"We have tried to be as transparent as possible with all of our stakeholders while navigating significant declines in patient volume and revenue," he said in a statement Monday. "We have followed the proper protocol laid out in union contracts with respect to our recent workforce reduction.

"Essentia is doing everything possible to make sure we are here to make a healthy difference in the lives of our patients not only for an expected influx of COVID cases, but well into the future. Our mission and our values are what’s at the heart of these difficult decisions."

This story was updated at 6 p.m. June 1 with an updated statement from Essentia. It was originally posted at 2:24 p.m. June 1.