Nurses at Meriter Hospital got a new contract this weekend, averting a strike planned for later this week. According to SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, the union representing nurses at Meriter, the contract was passed with near unanimous consent from its members.
That approval came after at least a month of tense negotiations with UnityPoint Health Meriter.
Under the new contract, Meriter nurses will be given improved shift pay for working outside of their scheduled hours and a higher base pay. The new contract also gives nurses a stronger voice in determining the hospital’s response to the current and future public health crises.
Speaking with WORT’s A Public Affair earlier today, Louise Nordstrom, a Meriter nurse represented by SEIU, said that one of the major sticking points for staff was how Meriter handles sick time and vacation time — especially during a pandemic.
According to Nordstrom, Meriter combines sick days and vacation days into combined ‘earned time,’ or ET. Meriter nurses are required to use their ET while waiting on the results of a COVID-19 test, and if they get COVID-19 but cannot directly trace their exposure back to their workplace.
“We have quite a handful that are experiencing a negative balance in their ET as a result of a change in policy early on at the hospital allowed us to draw from hours we don’t have,” Nordstrom said. “So essentially, we had people sitting at home who were sick or possibly sick owing the hospital money or time back for being off at that point in time.”
As part of the contract renegotiation, nurses will be given up to sixty additional paid time off hours this year to help pay back that negative balance.
Reno Gatton is a nurse in the post-anesthesia care unit at Meriter Hospital and member of the bargaining committee. He told WORT’s Patty Peltekos that he hopes this negotiation will inspire other local healthcare workers to unionize.
“We really need to help other hospitals unionize, especially those hospitals that helped us during this contract negotiation,” Gatton said. “It’s what gives you, as a worker, your voice. It’s empowering to feel everyone standing behind you and, when you’re feeling exhausted, having these team members stand with you is so important.”
Nurses at nearby SSM Health do not have a union, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. Nurses at the nearby UW Hospital lost their union after Act ten ended collective bargaining for state employees, although nurses have been asking the hospital board to voluntarily recognize them as a union.
During their negotiations, Meriter Nurses saw the backing of a number of elected officials; including Governor Tony Evers, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and even Sen. Bernie Sanders — who tweeted his support. Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and area Democratic state legislators also voiced their support.
“As you demand better from Meriter hospital, I too demand better,” said State Representative Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) at a press conference last Tuesday. “I demand better for you, I demand better for everybody on the front lines and I demand better for our community.”
(Photo: Meriter Nurses demonstrate outside the state capitol on March 16th, 2021 / Chali Pittman)