Meriter service workers rally to demand more pandemic time off

    Rally with banner
    A group of UnityPoint-Meriter hospital service and support workers, who are demanding an increase in paid time off in line with what nurses at the hospital have received, rally in Madison on Thursday. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

    Three months after nurses at UnityPoint Health-Meriter hospital in Madison negotiated a new union contract with extra time off tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, a second group of unionized Meriter employees is asking for the same additional benefit.

    But while the nurses obtained added time off in contract negotiations, hospital officials say they won’t consider doing the same for service and support workers — maintenance, custodial and dietary workers, along with nursing assistants, obstetrics techs and other support employees — until that group’s contract expires next year.

    Employees accumulate and bank paid time off, which comprises sick days as well as vacation days, based on the hours that they work. The COVID-19 pandemic has sharply increased the need for time off, according to hospital employees, who have been required to stay home and quarantine if infected or exposed to the coronavirus. Some have depleted their time-off accounts as a result. 

    Employees contend those absences should have been covered by workers compensation because of their risk of exposure to the virus in the hospital, but that such claims were allowed only rarely.

    After Meriter’s 850 nurses won an additional 60 hours of paid time off in a new contract negotiated this March, the hospital gave nonunion employees an additional 40 hours of paid time off. 

    The union-represented service and support workers weren’t included, however. Both they and the nurses are represented by the same union, SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, but their contracts are negotiated separately on alternating years. The hospital’s management said the service group would have to wait until their next contract negotiations in 2022.

    “I can say the service and support staff, who have kept this hospital functioning, have never felt so under-appreciated,” assistant cook Erin Mender said on Thursday at a union news conference outside the hospital. “Meriter’s motto is, and I quote, ‘You matter.’ We don’t feel like we matter.”

    The nonunion employees granted additional paid time off after the nurses’ contract was ratified include “managers working from the safety of their home,” Mender added. “And what do we get? We get nothing. This is unacceptable.”

    The existing contract with service and support staff “includes up to seven weeks paid time off earned each year,” according to a statement that the hospital’s management distributed Thursday. “We are open to considering a change in these jointly agreed upon benefits and continuing the conversation during the next negotiations for a successor agreement, as is standard practice in union environments.”

    In an email message to news organizations, a hospital spokeswoman said that 88% of service and support staff still have not used all their earned time off. 

    According to the union, however, more than 14% have either used up all their time off or have a negative balance of paid-time-off hours available. Workers who have either used up all their time, gone into the red, or have less than a week of time off available account for nearly half the service and support staff, the union contends.

    Nick Morgan, also a food service employee, said that as a transplant recipient with a compromised immune system he is especially vulnerable to the virus.

    “Making matters worse, because of my transplant, I used up all of my [paid time off],” Morgan said at the union’s news conference. While he was paid for additional time off that he had to take, “I was in the hole 80 hours,” he said, and time-off hours he has been earning since he returned to work are applied to draw down the negative balance instead of making it possible for him to take time off in the future.

    Union members were joined at the event by three Madison Democratic state legislators, Reps. Francesca Hong and Samba Baldeh and Sen. Melissa Agard. Participants then walked down to a nearby intersection and displayed a banner that declared “UnityPoint Health-Meriter: Show us Frontline Workers Matter” to draw public attention to their demands.

    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.