Nurses at UW Hospital announced their intent to unionize today. They say they’re too understaffed to properly care for patients and don’t feel supported by hospital administration.
This afternoon, nurses marched into this month’s meeting of the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority Board of Directors, and informed board members of their intent to unionize.
Then, the nurses walked across the street to the First Unitarian Society to announce their demand for the board to voluntarily recognize their union.
The nurses are seeking better staffing levels, more dedicated beds for patients and the ability to advocate on behalf of patients without threat of retaliation.
UW Health is one of Madison’s largest employers, with over 21,000 employees. It is responsible for the health of over 650,000 patients at seven hospitals and eleven times as many clinics. But resources are currently strained at the University Hospital, in part because many of the most experienced nurses have left and been replaced by newer ones. Sheri Signer has been a nurse at UW Hospital for seventeen years. She says that a series of recent changes drove them out.
“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.”
Signer says that the hospital used to have one nurse per three or four patients. Now that ratio is one nurse for up to six patients.
This can strain resources in critical situations, and led to morale problems even beyond the long work hours. Mariah Clark, a nurse in the emergency department who was one of the speakers at the rally, said that several nurses left because of anxieties about worst-case scenarios.
“People always leave for different reasons,” says Clark. “But we’ve had a very large number of very experienced, seasoned nurses who have been here long enough to see the situation change and have that longitudinal perspective of where we’ve been and where we are now. And they lived in fear that their name would be attached to a never event, something called a sentinel event, that is never supposed to happen in a hospital. Because of the way the conditions had changed, they felt that it was inevitable and they couldn’t in good conscience keep working. So they felt the need to resign.”
A sentinel event is any event in a hospital that results in the death or serious harm of a patient.
The nurses also say that management has not treated them fairly in disciplinary events, where nurses must represent themselves. management has discharged some nurses, and the people still there feel those nurses were not treated fairly. Marilyn Townsend, an attorney for one such nurse, says her client was forced to represent herself in her second language and was ultimately dismissed.
“I recently represented an unrepresented worker at UW Health who was discharged allegedly for not being sick on the day she took off,” said Townsend. “She tried to present doctors’ excuses and her supervisor said ‘present them on appeal.’ I represented her through the appeal process. They would not let me be present at any of the meetings and even though English is her second language-she only got her citizenship a couple years ago-they expected her to speak for herself. They upheld the discharge.”
Wisconsin’s aging population has led to concerns about a shortage of nurses across the state. UW-Eau Claire launched a 3.2$ million initiative in 2014 aimed at increasing the number of nursing educators. However, according to Signer, things have only gotten worse since then for students who may choose to work at the hospital after graduating.
“When I went back to school I got 100% tuition reimbursement,” said Signer. “Now they pay $4,000 a year. Which, as we know the rising cost of education and tuition, that doesn’t cover anything.”
Ruth Miller, a cardiac nurse who has worked as a nurse for twenty five years, points to another reason for the understaffing.
“The nurse residency program was huge,” said Miller. “So we were turning out brand new nurses for a long time and then they got to a point where we just hired too many for a while and instead of cutting back on it they nixed it. They just cut it out. And then they followed it for six months and magically, in the summer, when everyone went on vacation, we started being short. And instead of going ‘oh, shoot, we should put that back in place’ they’re like ‘nah, let’s not do that.’ And then they’d bring one or two here and there. But it was doing hundreds of nurses every three, four months. So you can’t just go from 100 to zero.”
The nurses lost their union when their contract expired in 2014, as a result of the gutting of collective bargaining by former Governor Scott Walker. After Act 10, Wisconsin unions are limited to bargaining for wages, and not hours or working conditions.
But though current state law does not allow collective bargaining, the UWHCA could move to voluntarily recognize the union. Clark says they are currently trying to get a meeting with management, and hopes to hear from the board by the New Year.
“The first step is convincing the board to meet with us and we met with them initially today,” said Clark. “We are hoping to meet with them individually over the next few weeks and hear a decision from them in the next few weeks. After that, we sit at the negotiating table with our shared voices. And we figure out what’s best.”