MADISON, Wisc. — Wisconsin elected officials gathered with registered nurses from UnityPoint Health-Meriter Hospital on the steps of the Capitol today to express solidarity with the nurses’ fight for a fair contract. On Saturday, March 13, nurses notified hospital management that they plan to strike on Wednesday, March 24 as they continue to advocate for a new contract agreement to better support nurses who have worked on the frontlines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meriter nurses said they are prepared to strike to win improved policies to ensure nurses can take care of themselves and their patients, heal and recover after a traumatic year, and be valued and respected for their essential work.
“Nurses work every day to ensure that our community is healthy and safe. From birth to death and everything in between, nurses are there for us,” said WI State Senator Melissa Agard. “Their commitment, passion, and determination has never been more clear than during this pandemic. The nurses and hospital workers of Meriter Hospital put their health at risk to help us make it through. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with them throughout these contract negotiations until they get a fair deal.”
Many RNs had to use all or most of their paid time leave during the crisis because they were infected with COVID-19 or were exposed and needed to quarantine. Nurses have proposed that the hospital replenish and expand paid leave hours to help nurses recover from the demanding experience of treating patients during the worldwide public health emergency.
“This year was exhausting for all of us, but it was nothing compared to the fatigue that our nurses have been through this past year,” said State Representative Francesca Hong. “Emotional labor and burnout are real. Nurses have gone above and beyond to do their jobs. UnityPoint Health-Meriter needs to do theirs. Honor, value and pay your nurses.”
“Nurses will bend over backwards to make sure our patients get the care they need, even if it means we put our own needs on hold,” said Carol Lemke, registered nurse in IMCU at UnityPoint Health-Meriter. “We work long hours in stressful situations. Many of us step up to work extra shifts when we don’t have enough staff, giving up time with our families and we’re proud to be there for our patients. After all we went through this year, nurses need time to recover, to be with our families, and be there for ourselves. We need Meriter to show us they value our commitment and sacrifices during this pandemic.”
Nursing and public health experts warn that without adequate support, large numbers of frontline healthcare workers will likely experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological consequences from the stress of responding to the pandemic.
“For a year, nurses stood in rooms that were too dangerous for the rest of us to stand in,” said State Senator Kelda Roys. “Nurses held up iPads so that we could say goodbye to our loved ones as they died. Nurses held their hands as they died. The least we can do is stand with them today – by ensuring a fair contract and restoring the earned time off that they lost through no fault of their own as they stepped up during this deadly pandemic.”
Meriter nurses say that because of ongoing staffing shortages, they frequently work extra shifts beyond their scheduled hours to fill staffing gaps. To compensate for the added stress of spending less time with family and friends, nurses are calling on UnityPoint-Meriter executives to increase pay for hours spent working extra shifts.
“Nurses on the frontlines of the pandemic have endured grueling hours, working extra shifts to fill gaps in staffing,” said State Representative Lisa Subeck (D-78). “They were forced to use their earned paid time off due to exposure to COVID-19 in their workplace. These nurses need and deserve more than our thanks. They need and deserve paid time off to heal and recover from the trauma of the pandemic and fair compensation for taking on more work in a time of crisis. Our community relies on Meriter to provide the highest quality health care, and these nurses are integral to that care. A contract that recognizes the sacrifices made by nurses over the past year is good for the hospital, good for their patients, and good for our whole community.”
Nurses are bargaining for key contract proposals including a meaningful voice in decision making; a reasonable work-life balance and sufficient paid time off that does not force nurses to use vacation days when they need sick days; and stronger protections against the current pandemic and any future public health emergencies.
“Together in our union, we have a seat at the table to address our concerns,” said Rhiannon Gatton, registered nurse in the PACU at UnityPoint Health-Meriter Hospital. “Every nurse, and every worker, should have the same: a right to join a union and have a voice at their workplace. We will keep standing strong together to raise standards at our hospital, and continue to stand in solidarity with other nurses who are fighting for their own seat at the table. Because ultimately, for nurses to be the best advocates for our patients, we have to advocate for ourselves as well.”
Contract negotiations between RNs and UnityPoint-Meriter representatives are scheduled to resume later this week.
More than 850 RNs at the UnityPoint-Meriter Hospital are united in SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, a statewide branch of the Service Employees International Union.