Education

Cold weather woes heat up UI nursing contract talks

Spokesman refutes claims the hospital slighted workers

Lynnette Halstead (center), staff nurse in the emergency room at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, prepares Jan. 5, 2017, to deliver a stack of 400 letters to then-UIHC Chief Executive Officer Ken Kates. The union again is in the midst of contract negotiations with the Board of Regents and plans to present new CEO Suresh Gunasekaran with hundreds of signatures. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Lynnette Halstead (center), staff nurse in the emergency room at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, prepares Jan. 5, 2017, to deliver a stack of 400 letters to then-UIHC Chief Executive Officer Ken Kates. The union again is in the midst of contract negotiations with the Board of Regents and plans to present new CEO Suresh Gunasekaran with hundreds of signatures. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — When snow blew Monday into Iowa City, many workers around town packed up early. Clubs and sports teams canceled meetings and practices. Schools called off classes.

But many staffers at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, who have less flexible jobs in their care of patients, couldn’t leave. With school out, many scrambled to get child care since they couldn’t work from home.

The frustration — coupled with what some said was a lack of help and understanding from their employer — comes as the Service Employees International Union is in heated negotiations over a new contract between 3,800-some UIHC professional and scientific employees and the Iowa Board of Regents.

The cold weather added yet more heat to the negotiations.

“My husband, an RN at UIHC, worked on the day that temperatures were -50 below,” Heidi Terzano-Borovic wrote on social media. “The hospital still did not allow staff to park in the ramps. He had to walk more than 10 mins in the frigid cold to get into work from his parking lot … I find that completely unacceptable.”

Her comment was one of more than 70 attached to an SEIU Facebook post. Another told of two nurses — both six months’ pregnant — left to dig car out of the snow in a parking lot after work. Another told of trying to comply with vacation and sick leave rules while dealing with two children out of school. The nurse said she was told she couldn’t use sick days for that, and her offer to shorten lunches, start early or take unpaid time were rejected. Instead, she said, she was threatened with termination.

Responding to questions from The Gazette, UIHC spokesman Tom Moore countered the accusations of inadequate preparations and employee accommodations.

The hospital provides notice of forecast weather events and “many hotels offer discounted rates for those who live outside the area and need to stay in town,” he said. When possible, Moore said, the hospital makes space available in the hospital for staff.

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And, he said, it offers 24-hour emergency service to jump start cars or provide rides. During the recent polar vortex, Moore said, UI parking made shelters available for a warm place to wait for a bus, for example.

“UI offers a generous benefit package that includes paid vacation and paid sick leave,” Moore said in an email. “UI Hospitals & Clinics regularly works with staff to accommodate their personal situations, while at the same time balancing the need to care for all our patients.”

SEIU President Cathy Glasson said the hospital’s handling of the foul weather provides a snapshot into the bargaining battle her union faces.

The union is pressing the Board of Regents to negotiate over more issues than base pay, although a controversial 2017 law limiting the bargaining rights of public sector unions says regents don’t have to.

The union initially asked for an 8-percent pay raise for all employees — in addition to a contract addressing what it says are overtime, vacation and safety issues. The hospital responded by expanding its initial offer of 1 percent for new employees to all employees, offering 1 percent to most job classifications and up to 2.7 percent for some.

Last week, union leaders reported 88 percent of respondents rejected the proposal, prompting the union to ramp up its fight. A week of planning is culminating with a Valentine’s Day of action, including a sticker campaign and a “special delivery” to new UIHC Chief Executive Officer Suresh Gunasekaran.

Union bargaining representatives plan Thursday to deliver about 1,000 signed cards to Gunasekaran, urging him to “have a heart” and prod the regents for a “full and fair contract,” Glasson said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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