Meriter nurses reach agreement, averting threatened strike

Ratification sets the stage for more activism among health care workers stressed during the pandemic

union rally for Meriter nurses
Pastor Tim Schaefer of First Baptist Church in Madison offers an invocation Friday at a rally of union members in support of nurses negotiating a new contract with UnityPoint Health-Meriter hospital in Madison. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

Unionized nurses at UnityPoint Health-Meriter hospital ratified a new contract agreement Saturday, capping a week of intense bargaining and a year of navigating a pandemic that has ratcheted up the stress of health care workers nationwide.

The agreement averts a possible strike that had been called to start Wednesday, March 24. It also advances several of the nurses’ priorities for improved sick leave benefits as well as a stronger voice in policy decisions that affect health care workers.

“This has been a difficult year for so many, and we appreciate how both sides came together to reach a fair agreement and look forward to collaboratively implementing this contract together,” Suzi Kossel, a Meriter nurse and member of the nurses’ bargaining committee, said in a statement Sunday morning.

A statement from the hospital also cheered the agreement. “We are extremely pleased with this outcome,” said Sherry Casali, chief nursing executive at UnityPoint Health-Meriter. “Our nurses are our lifeblood, and we’ve always been committed to supporting them. This new contract only furthers that promise.”

The union and hospital management reached the agreement about midnight on Friday, following a week of talks in which the nurses held out for stronger language on key issues including time off for illness and a larger union role in the discussion of policy during health crises.

Union gets backing

In the final days of negotiation the nurses’ union marshaled support from other labor organizations as well as politicians.

On Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed the nurses’ cause, tweeting, “We must treat them like the heroes they are.” 

State Sen. Melissa Agard speaks at a press conference March 9 for UnityPoint Health-Meriter hospital nurses. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

The next day, Gov. Tony Evers weighed in. He was one of many Wisconsin Democratic politicians to do so, including Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, state Rep. Francesca Hong, state Sen. Melissa Agard and several others.

At a Friday morning rally in front of the Madison Labor Temple just a few blocks south of the hospital, unions representing electricians, firefighters, truck drivers and teachers and other groups all declared their support for the nurses, as did the Dane County chapter of the NAACP.

“These demands have been more than earned because nurses have given and continue to give us so much,” said Bill Franks, an NAACP board member. “They deserve to be valued and properly compensated for their sacrifices.”

Among the labor leaders who spoke, the most concrete display of support may have come from Teamsters Local 344, whose members include UPS package delivery drivers in Wisconsin. Business agent Kevin Schwerdtfeger told a cheering crowd of several dozen union members that he had written a letter to UnityPoint Health warning that “we fully expect that our members will refuse to make any deliveries to Meriter Hospital, or anywhere a primary picket line exists” in the event of a strike. “Teamsters honor picket lines,” he added, “and we honor our nurses and health care providers in the state of Wisconsin.”

SEIU said Sunday that more than 2,500 people had pledged not to cross the picket line in the event of a strike, with nearly half of them nurses working “at other Madison-area hospitals.”

With the agreement, the union also withdrew an 11th-hour unfair labor practice charge it had filed with the National Labor Relations Board. In a statement on Friday, the union had claimed the hospital was “wasting resources on an intimidation campaign” instead of reaching a deal. The charge accused the hospital of unspecified threats to nurses for union activity. After the union dropped the charge, Meriter reiterated in its statement Sunday  that the “vague allegations were untrue and without merit.”

The union would not comment Sunday on the now-dismissed charge, but the allegations appeared to refer to several surveys that asked nurses whether they planned to strike and warning them that their shifts would be canceled if they failed to reply.

According to a summary of the agreement from SEIU Wisconsin Healthcare, the new contract includes additional hours of paid time off for nurses who have exhausted their available leave and increases base pay as well as the premium pay that nurses receive if they work past the scheduled end of their shifts or are called in on a scheduled day off. The two-year agreement will raise wages 2.6% in each year.

Additionally — in what nurses have said was one of the key issues in the negotiations — it gives them “a greater voice in decisions during current and future public health crises so that nurses can protect themselves and their patients,” according to the union.

Collaboration and conflict

In the  nurses’ contract talks, long-standing concerns among health care workers collided with the intense pressure that the COVID-19 pandemic has produced.

Well before the advent of the coronavirus, people working in health care have complained that management policies prioritizing leaner staffing and maximizing revenue have made their work more difficult and schedules more erratic while leaving them out of the loop on policies and practices. The pandemic has aggravated those issues, health care worker advocates say. And Meriter nurses aired similar complaints after going public with their contract dispute earlier this month.

From the day that the nurses’ union raised the possibility of a job action, Meriter hospital management declared that it would continue to bargain. At the same time, the hospital’s representatives enumerated policies and benefits already in place that they emphasized made its staff “among the best paid in Wisconsin.”

The front entrance of UnityPoint Health-Meriter hospital in Madison. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

Those included wages of up to $47 an hour, health benefits for people starting at 20 hours a week, flexible part-time schedules that a majority of nurses at the hospital preferred and other perks. Hospital officials also contended they have worked well with the union in the past.

“Our history with our union is that we’ve always had a collaborative working relationship with them,” Casili, the chief nursing executive, told the Wisconsin Examiner in an interview Friday afternoon while negotiations were continuing.

Casili cited regular meetings with the nurses’ union representatives “even when we’re not in the pandemic, or even when we’re not negotiating.” Those have continued during the pandemic, she added, “to be sure that they understood how we’re taking care of our employees and the steps that we were taking, and to address any concerns that they might have.”

Under its system of “shared governance,” she added, the hospital convenes meetings and committees with nurses and other employees, union and non-union, to address nursing practice, patient safety and a wide range of other topics. “The frontline staff — we want their voices, we want their experts, they are the people providing the care,” Casili said. “We always open that up to ask for any direct feedback, any clarifications, any questions, concerns, needs.”

View from the hospital floor

But nurses have told the Wisconsin Examiner that the relationship has been lopsided at times. For example, when the hospital changed its vacation and sick leave policy last year in response to the pandemic, it acted unilaterally, informing the union’s bargaining team after the fact.

As with many workplaces, the hospital combines vacation time and other forms of time off, such as paid sick leave, into a single category of ‘earned time off,’ which employees accrue based on the number of hours they’ve worked. With public health recommendations that people who test positive for the coronavirus isolate for up to two weeks — and that people who are exposed to someone with the virus similarly quarantine — some nurses quickly burned through their accumulated time off, including when they had to quarantine after being exposed to patients with COVID-19.

Various forms of paid and unpaid leave can help cover that. But nurses had complained that despite exposure on the job, only rarely was a case qualified for worker’s compensation.

One of the hospital’s responses was to institute a policy allowing people to overdraw their earned time off. As a result, they were “owing the hospital if they were to get sick and be home,” said Louise Nordstrom, a neonatal intensive care nurse.

The nurses’ bargaining team members “were called, and they were told, ‘This is what we’re doing — we’re letting you go negative,’” Nordstrom said. “What we’re asking for in the future is that it would trigger an actual negotiation back and forth to allow our team members to say, ‘This is what we need.’” The objective, she said, would be to “hash those things out together as a team, rather than just being told what we’re doing.”

Hospital officials say they’ve tried to communicate openly with the staff and that they sought to protect employees in managing personal protective equipment, some of it in short supply.

But Victoria Gutierrez said that was not what she and other colleagues on the nursing staff experienced. Early in the pandemic, she said, “there were just lots of questions that we had, and we never really got any answers. I mean, it was all pretty much from above down.”

The agreement that the hospital and the union reached Friday night included items addressing several of those issues, according to a union summary — replenishing employees with up to 60 hours of “earned time” based on hours worked and zeroing out negative time-off balances. It also includes a provision for the hospital and the union to “meet, confer and bargain regarding the impact of a government-declared health emergency.”

Broader implications

In reaching the brink of a health care walkout while the pandemic is still active, then coming away declaring victory, the nurses’ union is laying the groundwork for further union activism in health care.

Earlier this year, SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin released a poll in which a majority of the people who responded expressed support for unions, especially in health care.

The concerns that nurses expressed at Meriter echoed widespread frustrations,  according to health care worker advocates. The most prominent example of late: nurses working for the University of Wisconsin Hospital & Clinics Authority — UW Health.

Staffing, scheduling and a desire for more direct influence on their working conditions were among the issues they cited when they organized for union recognition — also with SEIU — more than a year ago, only to be rebuffed by UW Health management, contending that the hospital system would rely on its internal channels instead.

Meriter nurse and bargaining team member Suzi Kossel pointed to the potential for broader impact in the union’s statement Sunday.

“This is not only about taking a stand for Meriter nurses,” Kossel stated, “but also for all our colleagues throughout the hospital, and all healthcare workers and essential workers through our state and country who have sacrificed so much over the past year.”

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.