RELEASE: Public Support for Caregivers Surges on Eve of Final Contract Talks at University of Iowa Hospital

Iowa public, patients flood caregivers with messages of support; excerpts below, including moving tribute from retired officer on his wife’s care

Facebook post about UIHC stranding caregivers during storm reaches 80,000; in last week 1,500 sign petition to Regents to be fair, protect care

Caregivers still working to move Regents off their bare-bones contract offer that could make turnover at the hospital even worse

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MEDIA AVAILABILITY: Although Tuesday’s negotiations, which start at 1 p.m., are closed to the media, UIHC caregivers will be available all day for in-person or phone interviews. Please call Jim McNeill at 202-213-1614 to arrange interviews or to get updates on negotiations.

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IOWA CITY — As contract talks at Iowa’s flagship hospital near their end, public support for caregivers there has surged.

The 3,800 RNs and healthcare professionals at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC) are members of SEIU Local 199, and they have been in negotiations for a new contract since November. Those talks head into mediation on Tuesday, but the Iowa Regents, who oversee UIHC, are still offering a bare-bones contract that could drive away caregivers and threaten care.

However, the tenor of those talks changed dramatically last week after the administration’s failed response to the snowstorm. Caregivers braved the storm to get to the hospital, parking in lots as far as a mile away. But when their shifts were over, the administration left them stranded without buses or vans to get them back to their cars.

A Facebook post about the administration’s failure has now reached 80,000 people, and it has provoked dozens of powerful comments from caregivers, patients and the public. (Click here to see the post.) A petition to the Regents urging them to settle a fair contract that will protect care has also seen a surge in signatures. In the last week alone, almost 1,500 people have signed the petition.

This outpouring of support for the caregivers has included some extraordinarily moving letters from former patients and their families. One of the most powerful letters was sent to the Regents and the UIHC administration by retired detective Kevin L. Rieck of the Chickasaw County Sheriff’s Office. The nurses and staff of UIHC’s cardiovascular intensive care unit cared for Rieck’s wife, Sandi, for close to a month last year. Tragically, she passed away despite the best efforts of her care team.

In his letter to the Regents and administration, Rieck wrote, “I can’t say enough about how the teams wrapped themselves around not only her but, me, her daughter, family and friends. They treated her heart along with the hearts of all of us. You have a set of people there that show more value to their level of care than you can imagine.”

“When I have talked about my loss,” Rieck concluded, “I don’t remember all the technology and machines, I remember the people taking care of them. Don’t forget them. I won’t. Look up, look in your heart, what do you want to answer when you’re asked, ‘What did you do to take care of my people’ at your judgment?”

The full text of Rieck’s letter is posted at the caregivers’ Facebook page here and is in a Microsoft Word file attached to this email. Also included in the attached file are a selection of some of the most powerful comments that have flooded the union’s Facebook page over the past week.

HERE IS A DETAILED EXPLANATION OF THE ISSUES AT STAKE IN THE TALKS

The UIHC RNs and healthcare professionals are seeking to repair the damage caused by a series of demoralizing policy changes the administration has imposed. Some of the punitive measures include:

Self-Defeating Sick Leave Policy – UIHC management has imposed a sick leave policy that threatens caregivers with discipline if they exceed a small number of sick days. But they’re also being threatened with discipline if they show up to work sick. The policy is a solution in search of a problem. In fiscal year 2016, before the policy was implemented, employees averaged only 3.72 days of sick leave a year. In 2018, that number dropped by just 0.12 days to 3.60 days a year. (These and all UIHC statistics in this advisory are drawn from data provided by the hospital during negotiations.)

Sneak Attack on Overtime Pay – In recent years the hospital had grown reliant on employees working substantial overtime to fill staffing holes. Employees in turn had grown reliant on that extra income. But recently, and suddenly, the hospital changed the way it calculates overtime so that employees working virtually the same schedules no longer get overtime pay. As a result, UIHC caregivers’ total overtime pay dropped from $7,674,349 in fiscal year 2016 to just $1,719,592 in fiscal year 2018. That’s been a brutal blow for many caregivers. Coen Olson, a medical lab scientist and author of a Cedar Rapids Gazette op-ed about the “quiet crisis” at UIHC, got a second job making pizza to make up for his lost income.

UIHC’s nurses and healthcare professionals are deeply worried that the further loss of experienced staff could compromise patient care. UIHC’s own data suggests that the administration’s attack on caregivers could be leading to a greater reliance on temp workers:

Alarming Increase in Agency Nurses – The use of agency nurses at UIHC jumped 32 percent from fiscal year 2017 to 2018. Agency nurses are temporary nurses hired on contract to fill staffing holes in units. Maintaining continuity of care with agency nurses can be challenging because they — unlike permanent, experienced RNs — often lack familiarity with a unit’s procedures. Troublingly, UIHC’s use of agency nurses jumped from 42,301 contracted days in fiscal year 2017 to 55,959 days in fiscal year 2018.

Much of the turmoil at UIHC stems from a controversial move two years ago by the Iowa Regents. In 2017, the Regents negotiated a contract with the caregivers that was set to go into effect that July. But they refused to honor the agreement, claiming they were empowered by a controversial 2017 law attacking public-employee bargaining rights. (The Iowa Supreme Court may soon rule on the legality of the Regents’ move, and a finding against them could be a boon for the caregivers.)

The absence of a union contract at UIHC is what has led to the imposition of demoralizing policies at the hospital. That’s why UIHC caregivers believe that re-establishing a fair contract is so important to restore morale, stabilize staffing and protect patient care. The caregivers have proposed, and the Regents have so far rejected, a contract that will:

Re-establish professional standards achieved in union contracts negotiated over two decades at UIHC. The administration replaced the contract with a handbook saying, “the procedures, practices, policies, and benefits described here may be modified or discontinued” at any time. That’s hardly professional.

Boost substandard pay. Though UIHC consistently ranks among the nation’s best hospitals, its RNs make 13 percent less than the nation’s median RN wage. The caregivers are seeking raises that would close that gap.

Unfortunately, the Regents’ latest contract offer, submitted last month, includes raises of just 1 percent a year over the next two years for the majority of job classifications. The highest raise, for some nurses, is just 2.7 percent the first year and even less than that the second year. It badly fails to make up the 13 percent difference with the median pay of RNs elsewhere in the United States.

FOR REGULAR UPDATES on bargaining and the caregivers’ contract campaign, go to their UIHC union Facebook page.

SEIU Local 199 represents 5,000 healthcare and public service workers across Iowa. It is an affiliate of the 2-million-member Service Employees International Union. SEIU’s Healthcare Division includes 1 million nurses, lab techs, environmental service workers and other vital staff who serve 60 million patients and clients.

For more information, contact Jim McNeill, Cell 202-213-1614, jim.mcneill@seiuiowa.org

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