Health

University of Iowa hospital staffers reject proposal to cut pay, eliminate raises

'This is a slap in the face,' one union member says

The Pappajohn Pavilion at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is shown in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
The Pappajohn Pavilion at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is shown in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Leaders of the union representing thousands of nurses and staffers at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics on Friday “overwhelmingly” rejected an administrative proposal to eliminate a pay raise scheduled for next month.

Specifically, the Service Employees International Union Local 199, which represents about 4,000 front-line UIHC workers, rebuffed a request from administrators and the Board of Regents to eliminate a 2.1 percent pay raise the parties negotiated to take effect July 1.

Union leadership also rejected the request to cut its members’ pay by 10 percent for three months.

Board and administrative leaders approached the union May 27 with the request aimed at saving nearly $15.6 million “to offset revenue losses at UIHC due to the COVID-19-related decline in patient visits,” according to an SEIU news release.

SEIU leadership reportedly offered a counterproposal that, in return for financial concessions, UIHC would “reinstate some basic union protections, such as a grievance procedure, better communications between the union and management, and increased employee involvement in decision making at the hospital.”

All public unions — save those in public safety — lost significant bargaining powers in 2017 when Iowa lawmakers stripped their rights to bargain for benefits unless employers agree to negotiate those items.

“Unfortunately,” according to union leadership Friday, “the Board of Regents rejected all the union’s proposals but still demanded that the union agree to the demanded concessions.”

Hospital finances

University of Iowa Health Care is grappling with a $120 million hit from COVID-19 and has warned of possible pay cuts, furloughs, unfilled positions and nixed raises.

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UIHC, like other health care providers across the nation, months ago halted elective and some scheduled surgeries in their coronavirus-response ramp-up. They also spent millions stocking up on personal protective gear, sanitizing material, and other medical equipment.

The curtailed surgeries caused massive declines in UIHC patient volumes, which amounted to $150 million in losses through the end of June, trimmed to $120 million by $30 million in federal stimulus support.

Hospital administrators are projecting next year could be worse and have laid out a plan to improve efficiency, grow high-need programs, expand operating and open hours and “control labor expense.”

UIHC CEO Suresh Gunasekaran told The Gazette in May his team didn’t have immediate plans for any layoffs.

Union members respond

In a statement, UIHC employee Dawn Shannahan called the rejection of the union’s counteroffer “a slap in the face to all of the front-line health care professionals who’ve been going to work every day during the pandemic.”

“We’ve stepped up at every turn, and this is the thanks we get?” said Shannahan, who works as an educator in the UIHC Child Behavioral Health Unit.

Laramie Wall, a registered nurse in the cardiovascular unit, said in a statement that negotiations are supposed to be “a give and take.”

“But, in this case, we are doing all the giving, and they are doing all the taking,” said Wall, who serves on the union’s bargaining team.

‘Unfortunate’

SEIU Local 199 President Cathy Glasson stressed the contract ensures her union members will get their 2.1 percent raise next month. And she called it “unfortunate” the Board of Regents thought it appropriate to ask for such “huge concessions without offering anything in return.”

“Their proposal seems counter to their message that ‘we’re all in this together,’ ” Glasson said. “The good news is that the dedicated health care professionals at UIHC can look forward to receiving their much deserved 2.1 percent raise, thanks to their union contract.”

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In an informal poll of union membership, Glasson told The Gazette, many said they were willing to absorb a temporary pay cut so long as it was considered a “loan” they could get back after revenue rebounded.

The union also requested from the administration a commitment of no layoffs during this contract term but that was “shot down,” Glasson said.

UI, ISU campuses

Like its health care campus, administrators atop the University of Iowa campus recently announced plans to absorb its tens of millions in COVID-19 losses via furloughs, reassignments and potential layoffs.

Iowa State University also has announced budget cuts and nixed raises, although ISU President Wendy Wintersteen in April said unionized workers will get their 2.1 percent pay raise.

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

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