Photos by WORT News Director Chali Pittman.
State Democratic lawmakers showed their support for nurses at UnityPoint Health-Meriter Hospital on Tuesday morning. The press conference came two days after Meriter Hospital nurses delivered a notice of strike to the hospital.
The nurses at UnityPoint Health-Meriter Hospital are represented by the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. The union has been negotiating with management for a better contract since February, but some sticking points remain. According to Suzi Kossel, a nurse at Meriter Hospital and a co-chair of the nurses’ council, a main sticking point is sick time.
“In every other hospital, the nurses were simply supported,” said Kossel. “They did not have to use their own sick time when they got COVID. We’re also fighting for fair compensation for extra shifts that are supposed to be our days off to rest and recover and spend time with our families. And so we’re just asking for fair compensation for those days we sacrifice away from our families, recovering.”
Kossel says that while she has only had to use a few days of her sick time while waiting for a test result, some of her co-workers spent so much time on sick leave that they now owe the hospital time and money. Rhiannon Gatton says that this was his experience.
“At one point, our surgical areas were shut down for a month due to COVID,” said Gatton. “To make ends meet, I had to use my earned time. Then, while waiting on the result of a COVID test this fall, I was forced to quarantine at home. I actually went negative myself on my earned time. I’m not the only nurse who is dealing with this or talking about this issue.”
UnityPoint Health-Meriter released a statement on Sunday saying that they were willing to continue bargaining, and condemned the SEIU’s decision to issue the strike notice. They said in the statement that they “have historically preferred to bargain only at the table not via news reports.”
Hospitalizations continue to decline in Wisconsin, and the state currently has the lowest number of patients hospitalized in Wisconsin due to covid since last July. Carol Lemke, an intermediate care nurse at Meriter, says that she has given direct care to many patients throughout the pandemic. However, Lemke says that ultimately nurses need more representation to ensure proper protections.
“We just want to be made whole for our time,” said Lemke. “In future public health crises, nurses should have a real voice in decisions and be part of the solutions. We want to be heard when we raise concerns. When the community needed nurses, we were there. Now we need others to be there for us.”
The nurses were joined by a number of Democratic state lawmakers, including state Senators Melissa Agard and Kelda Roys, and state Representatives Lisa Subeck and Francesca Hong. All of them represent the Madison area. Subeck says that the Meriter nurses deserve better than what they are getting.
“I again want to thank our nurses for fulfilling what our community needs and what we demand of them,” said Subeck. “And I am here today to stand with you. As you demand better from Meriter Hospital, I too demand better. I demand better for you, I demand better for everybody on the front lines, and I demand better for our community,” she said.
The nurses at Meriter plan to start their ten-day strike next week on Wednesday, March 24th.