Guest Columnist

The quiet crisis at Iowa's flagship hospital

An interview room is empty during an open house at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics’ Crisis Stabilization Unit in Iowa City on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
An interview room is empty during an open house at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics’ Crisis Stabilization Unit in Iowa City on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Two years ago, I began my career as a medical lab scientist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC). I’ve been privileged to work with some of the most skilled and dedicated caregivers in the country.

But during my time at UIHC, I’ve seen too many colleagues — from nurses to techs to social workers — leave the hospital. Not because they’ve reached the end of a long career, but because they’ve been driven away by the actions of our leadership at UIHC and the Capitol in Des Moines.

Last year, Iowa’s legislators passed a law that attacked the collective bargaining rights of public employees like us at UIHC. The Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees our hospital, has pushed that law to its limit. Even though we, the nearly 4,000 nurses and health care professionals of UIHC, had reached agreement with the regents on a union contract set to begin in July 2017, the regents refused to honor it.

Ever since our contract expired, UIHC administrators have been dismantling policies that allowed us to provide great care while building a future within the hospital’s walls.

The administration has drastically reduced the number of sick days caregivers can take before facing discipline. Many nurses now feel pressured to come to work sick, yet they’re also being reprimanded for reporting to work while sick. A crazy catch-22.

The hospital also made a change to the way overtime is paid, costing many of us thousands of dollars a year in lost wages. I’ve taken a second job making pizza to make up for the lost overtime. But a number of co-workers in my department, affected by this and other policy changes, simply chose to leave.

All the experienced staff on our department’s third shift are now gone. The new employees who’ve taken their place are great workers with a lot of potential, but not having access to seasoned staff creates a much more difficult and stressful environment.

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The problems at UIHC are not limited to my department. There is a quiet crisis across our hospital. Everyone here remains committed to providing the highest quality care, but as our hospital continues to hemorrhage staff, we wonder how much longer we can maintain the outstanding care Iowans deserve.

Instead of watching our hospital decline, the health care professionals and nurses of UIHC are choosing to be proactive. In late November, we began bargaining for a new union contract. We presented a proposal that offers real solutions to the problems at our hospital.

An acute problem at UIHC, and at hospitals across Iowa, is the low pay for many employees. Among the 50 states and D.C., Iowa ranks 48th in pay for RNs. Our proposal includes raises that would get us closer to the national median and improve our ability to recruit and retain high-quality staff. We’ve also moved to restore the professional policies and standards achieved in our former contract.

Unfortunately, the regents responded with a bare-bones offer that would strip away all the provisions in our contract and saddle us with a 1 percent raise for new employees and no raise for current employees. We hope this is just posturing because their proposal would only exacerbate UIHC’s problems.

The regents’ offer also seems to contradict the vision of our new CEO, Suresh Gunasekaran, who has told The Gazette how the excellence of our academic medical center drew him to Iowa. We are heartened by his appreciation for the world-class care we provide. We hope he’ll work together with us to maintain it.

• Coen Olson works at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and is a member of the SEIU Local 199 bargaining team.

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