Negotiations between Greater Regional Medical Center and its caregivers union, SEIU Local 199, are moving forward, but progress has been slow.
Because of a piece of controversial legislation signed in 2017 by former Gov. Terry Branstad, employers are only required to negotiate wages as part of a union agreement with service employees. The negotiation of any other items, such as continuing education compensation and time-off, must be agreed upon between the employer and the union-member employees.
Recently, a campaign was launched urging GRMC leadership to be more open and receptive to the needs of its care providers. GRMCstrong.org includes an overview of issues facing the hospital as well as a petition promoting the cooperative bargaining process.
Dustie Burton, a registered nurse in the med-surg unit at GRMC and a member of the union, went before the Board of Trustees April 23 during its regular monthly board meeting and presented the union’s case.
“Let me begin by saying that our goal as a union for GRMC is to work together with the administration to continue to provide the excellent care I know that we already give,” Burton said. “We want to keep that flowing to our patients and our community, and we believe the most important investment that this hospital can make is in the people who provide that care. When we have a voice that is heard and a seat at the table for the decisions that affect our lives and the lives of patients, everybody wins, in the community and with our patients.
“Unfortunately, the state legislature has passed a law this past year that makes it more difficult for us to come together,” she added. “But it didn’t make it impossible. There are permissives that we can discuss, and coming to an agreement on all of these issues will lead to better staff retention and continuity of care, so it’s a win-win for all of us.”
Following the presentation by Burton, GRMC Board President Dave Driskell read a prepared statement concerning union negotiations.
“While it’s the Board of Trustees’ duty to engage in all activities necessary to manage, control and govern the hospital, Iowa law grants the hospital CEO the authority to oversee the day-to-day operations of the hospital employees,” he said. “The negotiations of this contract fall within the authority granted to the CEO and his negotiating team. At this time the Board has full confidence in the team, and the Board is hearby giving the hospital leadership the authority to continue negotiations and deliberations on behalf of the hospital and this Board.”
A week later, in a statement published in the employee newsletter, GRMC CEO Monte Neitzel said, “We will not change the benefits that are currently offered at Greater Regional. This means PTO (paid time off), health, dental, life, disability, shift diff[erential], callback and IPERS will all remain a part of the total compensation package.”
“I think it’s a really good step in the right direction,” said Cassie Wilmeth, a dietary technician and President of GRMC SEIU Local 199. “It shows that they’re putting out some information because up to this point, they really hadn’t said anything. We are glad that they put it out there that they’re planning on keeping pretty much all of the benefits. We’re happy to see that. I think that shows they’re wanting to let us know kind of what they’re thinking now. We think it’s a positive thing. We just hope they will be willing to discuss that a little more with us when we go to the table.”
The union isn’t asking for anything new, she added. It just doesn’t want to see anything change.
There is one change GRMC leadership plans to make, according to the newsletter. They want to take away longevity pay for longtime employees. Instead, it wants to take that money and disperse it among all bargaining unit staff members equally.
Union members feel longevity pay is an important component to what helps GRMC retain quality care providers.
“We need staff that is going to be there for the long run,” said med-surg Registered Nurse Virginia Tallmon, “and I think that they need to feel valued to keep them there. I just think it kind of sends a message to the ‘old timers’ that they’re needed and that their knowledge and experience in the hospital and taking care of the patients [is needed]. That even goes back to patient care and patient safety. They’re just awesome nurses. I’m one of the older ones now, but even the younger ones, we learn from them as well as they learn from us. I think they need to know that they’re important and I think that’s a good way to show them.”
As negotiations reach the final stages – the current contract expires June 30 – it is the hope of the union members that a reasonable compromise can be made on all the issues on the table, particularly the issue of longevity pay, that will be beneficial to the employees, the patients and the hospital.
“The message I would want to send is that it protects both sides to a certain extent, and that all goes back to patient care and patient safety again,” Tallmon said. “The more that we’re honest with each other and open with each other and we know where we stand and all of that, it can’t help but be better for the patients and for the employees and for the hospital.”