UnityPoint Health-Meriter hospital nurse Suzi Kossel, a union bargaining team member, addresses reporters at a news conference Tuesday. The union’s members have authorized the bargaining team to set a strike deadline in their contract negotiations. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)
Saying that they have been overwhelmed by the demands placed on them by the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses at a Madison hospital announced Tuesday they are prepared to go on strike for a new contract if they don’t make progress on key demands that include better paid sick leave and additional compensation for nurses who take extra shifts.
Nurses working for UnityPoint Health-Meriter hospital said Tuesday they have voted not to extend their contract — which expired Sunday, March 7 — and to authorize their union’s bargaining team to issue a strike notice “if necessary.”
SEIU Health Care Wisconsin represents about 850 nurses at the hospital, which is part of an Iowa-based nonprofit chain of hospitals and other health care providers.
“We have been bargaining for over a month, anywhere from eight to 15 hours a day,” said Suzi Kossel, a Meriter nurse and member of the union bargaining team, told reporters at a news conference Tuesday in front of the hospital. “We’ve made great progress on a lot of the contract. But we just can’t agree on some of the most important topics to nurses.”
Among the points of disagreement are additional compensation for nurses who take extra shifts and additional paid time off for sick days. Kossel said that workers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 “have to prove” that they were exposed on the job to get extra sick leave coverage; otherwise they have to use accrued time off, which might not be sufficient.
“We have been called heroes time and time again, especially by the community and by our hospital,” Kossel said. “We have not felt like we’ve been treated like heroes throughout the year.
“We’re not asking for a lot,” said another bargaining team member, 30-year nurse Pat Raes. “We’ve been asking for the bedside nurses to have a voice at the table of making decisions.”
Raes, along with Joe Maginn, an emergency room nurse and bargaining team member, said the pandemic has been grueling for health care workers.
“During normal times, it is not an easy job for frontline health care workers to punch out and go home and leave work at work,” Maginn said. “During this pandemic, it has been impossible; we cannot let it go.”
State Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) added her support at the nurses’ union press conference.
“This pandemic has exposed serious inequalities in our healthcare system. And we need to address this immediately,” said Agard. She characterized the Meriter nurses’ contract demands as “what we all want in our lives — a safe work environment, fair compensation, work-life balance, the ability to know that after a shift, they’re going to be able to go home safely to be with their family.”
The union and hospital management have negotiations scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday this week with a federal mediator.
Kossel said more than 98% of the union’s members at a meeting on March 5 voted to let the contract expire and to authorize the bargaining team to issue a 10-day strike deadline at its discretion. When the deadline is declared, the hospital and the union would have 10 days to negotiate a new agreement while the hospital would have to prepare for the possibility of a job action, the nurses explained.
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Meriter’s manager of strategic communications, Leah Huibregtse, said in a statement issued after the union’s press conference that hospital management “recognize the challenges the pandemic has caused professionally, personally, and emotionally for all our team members, including our dedicated nurses. We value our nurses as individuals and have put great effort into supporting them.”
The hospital is “actively engaged in negotiations with SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin and look forward to continuing to collaboratively bargain with them later this week,” Huibregtse stated. “We have already reached agreements on nearly 30 issues, and we are confident that our latest offer is fair and strong. We are hopeful that we can work collaboratively to reach solutions without a disruption to patient care.”
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