Hospitals to Receive $40 Million in Federal Funds for COVID-Related Lost Revenue, Expenses
Wisconsin hospitals will be eligible for $40 million in total federal funding for revenue, expenses related to COVID-19. (Photo by Pat Kreitlow.)

Board says it can change, improve conditions without recognizing SEIU 

The board in charge of overseeing operations at UW Hospital and Clinics said Thursday it plans to work more closely with that hospital’s nurses and will demand greater accountability from hospital management regarding workplace conditions, but it stopped short of recognizing a nurse’s union as those employees have demanded for the past two months. 

After meeting in closed session for nearly three hours, the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics Authority Board released a statement saying it will improve communication with the hospital’s approximately 2,000 nurses in an attempt to improve working conditions nurses and others said causes stress, hinders employee retention and at times endangers patients’ health.

“The board believes that is in the best interests of UWHCA, its patients, and employees for UWHCA management to continue to work directly with employees to understand their concerns and to work together towards solutions,” the statement reads. 

The board’s stance represents a softer approach toward the nurses’ effort to unionize than what occurred a month ago.

Following the January meeting, board members issued a statement saying forming a union lacked legal backing. But Thursday’s response doesn’t go far enough for nurses and others involved with the attempt to create a union.  

“This has been a hospital known for its high quality of care,” said Shari Signer, a nurse with UW Hospital. “We need to get back to that, and to do that, we think we need a union.”

The nurses announced in mid-December they had formed a union through SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin and asked for voluntary recognition from the UWHCA Board of Directors. 

Forming a union is not about increasing pay or benefits, nurses and other backers said. Rather, it is an attempt to address workplace conditions that have become untenable, they said, and at times endanger patients and lead to preventable deaths. 

Signer recalled when she was in the nurse residency program at UW Hospital and Clinics 13 years ago. 

She was assigned one patient at a time as she learned her profession.These days, Signer said, nurses in training typically work with four patients simultaneously, leaving them feeling stressed and overwhelmed trying to keep up with the demanding caseload. 

“You see them crying because they’re so overwhelmed,” Signer said shortly before the UWHCA Board met. “They have too many patients to keep up with. We’re not setting up these new nurses for success.”

Understaffing, high patient loads and inadequate nurse training have become commonplace in recent years, stretching existing resources to a breaking point, said Signer and other nurses. 

“More mistakes are being made because nurses are working under adverse conditions,” Signer said. “Sometimes it is a matter of life and death.” 

Another longtime nurse who refused to allow her name to be used for this story because she said she fears workplace retribution, said UW Hospital and Clinics has been known for its high-level patient care, but “now, with our under-staffing, every day we just hope nothing bad happens.”    

The attempt to unionize UW Hospital nurses represents the most significant attempt to do so since the implementation of the controversial Act 10, approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011. While that legislation curtailed union rights for most Wisconsin public employees, it ended collective bargaining entirely for workers at UW Hospitals and Clinics.

The union contract the nurses had in place at the time Act 10 was passed expired in 2014. The nurses organizing the union campaign said they understand their collective bargaining rights have been eliminated by state law. 

So organizers of the effort decided on a different approach. Through a process known as voluntary meet and confer, the nurses and hospital would negotiate for anything they want with the nurses voluntarily. It is just not a legal process like collective bargaining, which is governed by law, backers of the effort said.

Recognition of the union would allow nurses a greater say in hospital issues, which would in turn improve patient care as well as morale and nurse retention, those behind the union attempt said.

Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, told an audience of more than 100 attending the public comment period of the UWHCA Board meeting that the board’s recognizing the union is critical to improving patient outcomes. 

Understaffing and the resulting high nurse workloads create unsafe situations for patients, she said.

“Nurses are asking simply to be recognized as a union because they know that patient care is on the line,” she said. 

Other speakers at the meeting were critical of what they called the board’s reluctance to publicly discuss the union issue. The board limiting public comment to 15 minutes is an example of its members turning a deaf ear to public sentiment, they said. 

Several speakers asked several times whether the board would support the nurses’ effort to unionize. Each time board members, at the front of the room, remained silent, prompting jeers from the audience.

Prior to the board meeting, a coalition of community members, politicians and faith leaders convened for a news conference outside the hospital to urge support for unionizing the hospital’s approximately 2,000 nurses. Speakers described how working conditions for the hospital’s nurses have deteriorated in recent years without a collective bargaining process to address those issues.

“There is broad public support behind these nurses,” said Kevin Gundlach, president of the South Central Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, which backs the union effort. “Our community cares about this hospital, cares about its nurses and their union.” 

That backing has been evident in recent weeks when the union has received support community members in Madison and across the state, including the approval last week by the Dane County Board to support the measure.

Signer hopes that support eventually prompts the union to be officially recognized. Without that happening, she worries stressful conditions for UW Hospital nurses will continue to erode the quality of patient care.