CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa hospital workers demand 5% raise amid pandemic conditions

'We don't understand why the furloughs are continuing'

Licensed practical nurse Tiffany Kinney holds a swab taken from a patient exhibiting coronavirus-like symptoms before pl
Licensed practical nurse Tiffany Kinney holds a swab taken from a patient exhibiting coronavirus-like symptoms before placing it in a sealed container for testing at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Family Medicine Clinic in Iowa City on Monday, April 20, 2020.

IOWA CITY — Since the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics’ thousands of unionized health care workers last bargained with the state Board of Regents for better compensation and workplace conditions, they’ve endured unparalleled demands of a historic pandemic and want that reflected in a new contract.

Demands presented Wednesday by SEIU Local 199 — representing 4,000 UIHC nurses and professionals — include a 5 percent across-the-board raise for both contract years, elimination of “financially unnecessary furloughs that have exacerbated staffing problems,” and commitment to an “innovative partnership proposal” that would expand a labor management committee’s relevance.

“We think the labor management committee will be more effective if more managers and staff are at the meetings and have department heads or nurse managers attend — decision-makers who can discuss and make changes, not just hear our concerns,” Hannah Bott, SEIU organizer, said during the regent presentation.

A handful of UIHC nurses and staffers presented about the emotional and physical challenges they endured this year and the longing for appreciation of that work — including when it comes to compensation.

Over the summer, facing the prospect of pandemic-fueled losses in the tens of millions — a forecast that neared $150 million at one point but improved after operations began to normalize over the summer — UIHC leadership imposed furloughs after its thousands of unionized workers rejected a request they surrender their negotiated 2.1 percent pay raise.

Although the campus lost some revenue from COVID-19 and saw pandemic-related expenses soar, the worst projections never materialized and the health care enterprise ended fiscal 2020 nearly $14 million over budget — driving one of the group’s bargaining demands the hospital system abandon the furloughs.

“We don’t understand why the furloughs are continuing now, especially when they’ve been implemented in a way that makes very little sense,” Bott said, noting workers were given the option to either take unpaid time off or surrender vacation hours.

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“Many employees were already being denied vacation time due to staffing issues,” she said. “So they’re taking the unpaid time off. This has made the staffing issues in many units worse.”

Bott reported UIHC is plugging staffing holes created by the furloughs with high-priced traveling nurses.

“How does that make any sense?”

In arguing for stronger wages, the union representatives Wednesday noted the state of Iowa ranks 48th in the nation in registered nurse pay, ahead of just Alabama and Mississippi, and has seen an “alarming rise in turnover among experienced staff.”

The Board of Regents is scheduled to offer its union contract proposal Jan. 21.

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

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