UIHC union begins contract negotiations with state Board of Regents, asks for wage increase

Ten University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics employees and SEIU members asked the state Board of Regents to focus on increasing wages, stopping mandatory furlough, and staff retention issues in their contract bargaining discussions on Wednesday.


Katie Goodale

Board members listen during the Board of Regents meeting on September 12, 2018 in the IMU Main Lounge. Regents members discussed remodeling various buildings and sights across various Iowa campuses.

Eleanor Hildebrandt, News Reporter

University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics caregivers asked for a 5 percent raise per year in their two-year contract with the state state Board of Regents on Wednesday.

During the first virtual bargaining session between the regents and the UIHC chapter of the Service Employees International Union local 199, 10 UIHC employees from various specializations presented the union’s initial proposal. 

The group shared personal stories from working for UIHC and elaborated on how they wanted key issues fixed.

High employee turnover rates was a key factor in the union’s proposal alongside the added struggles of the COVID-19 pandemic on frontline workers. Fae Jones, a nurse clinician in UIHC’s digestive health clinic, said schedule challenges and demoralizing policies increase the likelihood of staff turnover. 

“Employees have been demoralized by a series of unilateral policy changes,” she said. “This fall, UIHC made a sudden and severe change to the schedules of many nurses and staff. It was done without any input from the employees. Many of us come to UIHC because of the scheduling flexibility. These changes left many staff without options and forced some of us to resign.” 

UIHC Occupational Therapist Anne Sullivan said the pandemic only exacerbated the concerns union members had. She said there were several times she felt unsafe going into work.

During the pandemic, many nurses at UIHC were furloughed to help with budget constraints, Sullivan said, which continues to put extra strain on caregivers. 

She added that the state’s and the hospital’s finances have the ability to increase the wages of UIHC employees alongside stopping the furloughs.

“The furloughs affected us on many levels,” she said. “Not only did it feel like a slap in the face, but it showed how hollow this rhetoric of ‘we’re in this together’ is…Now I see the state had a budget surplus for 2020 [of] $300 million and nearly a billion dollars in a rainy day fund. This is a rainy day.”

The state Board of Regents’ budget comes in part from state lawmakers. Lawmakers over the years have underfunded regent requests for more funds and at times cut its budget. On Tuesday, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds recommended lawmakers pass additional appropriations for regents for the budget year beginning July 1, but fell $11 million short of the regents’ request.

In the presentation Wednesday, Michele Whaylen, a physician assistant at UIHC and former critical care nurse, said other Midwestern states are ranked higher than Iowa for RN pay, which leads to UIHC professionals moving to Minnesota, ranked 13th, or Illinois, ranked 20th. Iowa is ranked 48th. 

“When we interviewed and surveyed our members, wages were the number one issue for the bargaining survey,” she said. “Strong wages are urgently needed to retain and recruit the world class staff that we want to have.”

Whaylen said SEIU is pushing for strong across the board raises because the last contract negotiations’ 2 percent raise left UIHC lagging behind other institutions and hospitals. 

The pay issue isn’t just between states, Sullivan said. Mercy One in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City have both raised their minimum wages, she said, which is why she supplements her income by picking up extra shifts at Mercy in Iowa City. 

Whaylen said the importance of premium pay that respects the roles of all professionals at UIHC cannot be overestimated, especially when it comes to the expense of traveling nurses and personnel. 

“Better pay isn’t just fair, it helps fill the staffing holes without high priced agency temporary employees,” she said. “On top of all the other fatigue we [nurses] have gone through this pandemic, there’s also the hyper-vigilance that core staff have to go through to watch over the temporary staff. That’s a whole other layer of stress and exhaustion.

SEIU President and RN Cathy Glasson finished the union’s initial proposal by asking for UI Health Care leaders and regents to put their supportive words into action to find real solutions for health care workers. 

“Working together to solve problems is the key to making progress,” she said. “We’re committed to work[ing] with UIHC to improve patient outcome, satisfaction, reduce costs, and run more efficiently…It’s about putting the words ‘we stand together’, into action.”

SEIU and representatives of the regents will reconvene on Jan. 21 with the regents’ response and proposal..