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IOWA CITY — Typifying the gaps separating the union representing thousands of University of Iowa Health Care workers and their governing Board of Regents, union representatives Wednesday opened contract negotiations with a 25-page proposal including a 14-percent raise — while regents offered a 1.5- to 3-percent raise on a single page.
“People are leaving,” UIHC registered nurse Courtney Smith told regent negotiators, dropping their thin proposal on the table. “They’re going to be gone.”
Although the Iowa Legislature in 2017 rewrote Iowa’s collective-bargaining law to limit most public-sector union negotiations to dealing over base wages only, the UIHC chapter of Service Employees International Union Local 199 asked regents to do what they’re no longer legally bound to do and add back into their contract language addressing issues like pay differential, parental leave and workplace violence.
Describing a significant increase in the amount and type of violence UIHC staff have experienced over the last several years, Hannah Bott, chief negotiator for the UIHC union, said the problem is worsening nationwide and “UIHC is not immune.”
“It's alarming,” she said. “Our staff are concerned. We have people who have been in the field for decades who are scared to go into work. And we would really like to work with the hospital to see that be addressed.”
Among nearly a dozen health care workers in the room for negotiations Wednesday, most raised their hands when asked if they’ve experienced workplace violence. One said he’s regularly punched in the face and has suffered a concussion. Another said a co-worker recently had a knife pulled on her.
Part of the danger stems from low staffing levels, said UIHC emergency room physician assistant Michele Whaylen, pointing — for example — to long ER wait times that escalate patients to the point of violence.
“Some of these people are seriously ill, critically ill, and they’re put back in the waiting room where they’ll sit for hours,” she said. “There's no attendant out there or anybody surveilling the waiting room, checking how people are doing. They're vomiting. They're seizing. They're doing God knows what out there, and then when it's like six, eight, 12 hours until they finally are starting to get the care and the orders enacted that I wrote from the triage area, it's no wonder people escalate.”
That, Whaylen said, ties into low staffing — which is tight because of recruitment and retention challenges amplified by wages.
Union officials said they researched wages in other Midwest states in formulating their proposal for a 14-percent pay raise for all employees in the next budget year and a 12 percent raise in fiscal 2025.
“University administrators have acknowledged in the past that we are behind on wages for staff, particularly in the SEIU unit, particularly for nurses, and we would like to see those wages come up,” Bott said.
The union also asked for longevity pay amounting to 4 percent each time an employee hits a milestone and differential pay for those who work overnight shifts and as charge nurses, for example. The union also suggested staffers in units with more reported assaults receive higher pay.
Having recently moved into an RN position, UIHC registered nurse Alex Kestrel. Kestrel said many of his nursing college peers planned to take jobs outside UIHC or to work as traveling nurses who fill vacancies around the country.
“People are leaving the hospital to go take traveling jobs where they can make a lot more money,” Kestrel said. “People are leaving the hospital to go work in other states and other institutions where they can make more money.”
Although only the first meeting of the ongoing negotiations is public, board’s chief negotiator Michael Galloway had another commitment an hour and a half into the discussion.
After presenting the board’s proposed 1.5-percent minimum pay raise and 3-percent raise for returning employees in both of the next two years, Galloway said he appreciates the union’s safety concerns but sees that — and other issues — as best addressed by UIHC policy and not in the employment contract.
“I want to not set up any false hopes. … We will not be putting additional language back in the contract,” Galloway said, citing direction from the Board of Regents. “I don't think it is good to set up false expectations as to what could occur during the bargaining process. And language going back in the contract is not something that we've been given the authority to do, nor do we perceive that we will be given that authority.”
UIHC Senior Physical Therapist Barb Stanerson said if the board continues to do the “minimum,” they should start expecting that from their employees.
“If you're going to pay us the minimum, people are going to start saying, ‘Why do I go bust my back here for these patients, working hours that are unbelievable because we're so short staffed. I could go to another state and make a lot more money and not have to kill myself,’” Stanerson said.
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