The nurses at UW Health have voted to go on strike next month if their union is not recognized by UW Health leadership.
The nurses at UW Health have been fighting for a union since 2019, when even before the pandemic they sought solutions to understaffing and long hours at the hospitals.
The issue comes from whether or not nurses at UW Health can be considered public employees. After Act Ten was passed in 2011, the UW Hospital and Clinics Board dissolved, forcing the nurses to negotiate with the similarly sounding UW Hospital and Clinics Authority, or UWHCA.
The UWHCA have repeatedly said that, due to Act Ten, they are unable to recognize any unionization efforts from the nurses. While the nurses had a union before Act Ten, that union expired in 2014.
But multiple legal memos, including one by state Attorney General Josh Kaul and another by the state’s nonpartisan legislative council, a group that advises policymakers on legal and policy research,, have stated that Act Ten only removed the obligation for UW Health to recognize a union; they are still able to do it voluntarily.
Why push for a union? Amelia Zepnick, a float nurse with UW Health, says they just want a seat at the table.
“The biggest thing that the pandemic has shown us is just how little say we at the bedside have over the policies that are being made. I think a big thing (for us) is staffing retention and recruitment and providing safer staffing ratios,” Zepnick says.
Zepnick says that, before the pandemic, she would be in charge of around four patients each day. Usually, two of those patients needed little attention, while one would need more attention due to how sick they were, and one needed total care for all their bodily functions. But after the pandemic…
“…and now, what I’m seeing is that, routinely, we don’t have enough staff to have four patients per nurse, you probably have five during the day. In addition, two or three of them might be total care patients where you need to coordinate with your nursing assistant to turn them, and help them clean up, and help them eat, and do all of those things. Maybe you’ll have one independent patient, but likely you won’t, and it hasn’t been uncommon for me to have more than one medically unstable patient at a time. It is incredibly stressful, as a nurse providing care,” Zepnick says.
The nurses held their vote yesterday, and said that they will strike from 7AM on September 13 to 7AM on September 16, unless UW Health officials recognize their union. Justin Giebel is a Trauma and ICU nurse here in Madison. Giebel started at UW Health just a month before the pandemic hit Madison, and says that they are striking because they are out of options.
“We as professionals and, essentially, whistleblowers, are saying that this is something that needs to happen, and if you won’t play ball then I guess we have to go with these drastic measures. I don’t think this is something that anyone wants to do, but our hand is being forced here a little bit,” Giebel says.
As soon as COVID hit Madison, Giebel was sent to the respiratory unit where he took care of COVID patients for almost two years. He says that the combination of working in such a dire situation right out of the gate, mixed with COVID-denialism and lack of resources from the administration, had taken a toll.
Geibel says that nurses at UW Health don’t feel like they have the backing of the administrators at the hospital
“It’s really disheartening, because this is meant to be a profession for people who just want to help people, and if we feel that we need to be asking for resources, we honestly think we aren’t asking for all that much. We need these things in order to do our duties to the best of our abilities and you’re driving people with altruistic intentions away from that, it’s really hard to see,” Giebel says.
UW Health officials declined to be interviewed by WORT, but in a statement they reiterated that they did not believe unionization was legal at the hospital. UW Health called the strike disappointing, and said that they treat staff better than other hospitals in the region, with a nurse turnover rate at half of the national average.
According to Indeed.com, the average salary for a registered nurse in Wisconsin is around $40/hr, lower than the national average of about $44/hr. And according to job postings on Indeed, most UW Health nursing jobs in Madison start at around a minimum of $30/hr.
Despite this pay disparity, Giebel says that money is not the main force in the drive for a union.
“I’m disappointed that Dr. Kaplan is trying to make this about pay when we’ve been sounding the alarm about patient safety, essentially since the beginning, of our organizing efforts,” Giebel says.
In their statement today, UW Health said that a nurses strike would harm patients. But Giebel says that the administration at the hospital has already been harming patients with the decisions they’ve made that led to decreased staffing at the hospital.
“We had a group of ICU nurses who were a part of a group called SOS, or Save Our Ship. When I first started at UW Health I was in general care and intermediate care, and if I had a patient who wasn’t doing well, I could page them and say ‘Hey, I would like a set of ICU nurse eyes on this patient.’ They were responsible for rapid responses if a patient wasn’t doing well and might need an escalation in the level of care. The administration began tacking on additional job responsibilities onto that department that were not part of the job description when they signed up, so a large portion of them have left. There’s often nights now where there are no nurses from that department working,” Giebel says.
On nights with no SOS nurses, when a patient goes critical, a nurse from the trauma department has to leave their own patients to help care for others, spreading the workload thin, delaying response times, and ultimately endangering patients, Geibel says.
Giebel also says that, on top of making their intentions well known now, they will give a more official notice to the hospital ten days before the strike so that the hospital can prepare for the striking nurses.
Amelia Zepnick agrees, saying that they have given plenty of notice to UW Health to prepare patients before they go on strike.
“I will also say that, our responsibility is to provide that notice so they can make accommodations, you know move out patients, provide alternative staffing, do all those things, that’s their responsibility. I would also argue that the reason we are striking and trying to get a union is for patient safety. We want to provide quality and safe care for our patients, and the policies that are being enacted that we aren’t being allowed a voice in are inhibiting our ability to provide quality care,” Zepnick says.
For years, nurses at UW have been steadfast about why they’re applying pressure: they say they’re too understaffed to properly care for patients and don’t feel supported by hospital administration.
Back in 2019, we spoke to Sheri Singer, who at the time had been a nurse there for seventeen years. Here’s what she said then:
“Over the last nine years the hospital guaranteed the nurses that they would take care of us and that we did not need a union,” said Signer. “Slowly, one by one, little changes started happening and in the last two years things have drastically changed, and now nurses have terrible morale, we are being asked to work overtime constantly, we’re short all the time, patient ratios have gone up, our access to support staff has changed in the hospital, our education has greatly decreased, so the overall atmosphere is just, it’s very low.”
At that time, the nurses hoped to have their union recognized by the new year. Now, three years later, the nurses say they are ready to take drastic measures to have their union recognized.
Photo courtesy: Dave Bates