Nurses at UnityPoint Health – Meriter Hospital agreed to ratify a two-year agreement following weeks of debate with the hospital.

Co-chair of the nurse’s council for the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Wisconsin chapter Suzi Kossel said workers called for increased protections in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 98% of nurses voted to allow the previous labor agreement to expire before drawing up a new arrangement.

The vote came after Meriter nurses filed a complaint against the hospital for harassing and intimidating them. The hospital denied these allegations, and as a condition of the labor agreement, the nurses withdrew their complaint, according to NBC 15.

Kossel said the union wants to work with the hospital to create an improved work environment for nurses.

“Nurses are the experts in their field of caring for patients, they are intelligent, creative and innovative and we are really excited to work with the hospital to make Meriter better than it is already,” Kossel said. “We are also looking forward to supporting our non-union nurses’ and all essential workers’ fight for their rights to be heard and valued the way we are able to.”

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, a majority of the 850 nurses represented by SEIU voted to approve a new labor contract. This agreement was necessary to prevent a possible strike by Meriter nurses. 

The SEIU is the fastest growing health care labor union, representing over 15,000 home care, nursing home, social service and hospital workers across the State of Wisconsin, according to the SEIU Website. 

Kossel said the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic both created new challenges for nurses and exacerbated existing grievances.

According to WORT radio, the UnityPoint Health – Meriter Hospital put out a statement condemning the possible strike, but multiple Democratic lawmakers indicated support for strike, including state Sens. Melissa Agard and Kelda Roys and state Reps. Lisa Subeck and Francesca Hong, several of whom attended a press conference with nurses.

According to WORT, some nurses take issue with Meriter Hospital’s sick time policies. 

Rhiannon Gatton, a nurse working with Meriter, said she struggled to make ends meet when she was forced to quarantine because of a positive COVID-19 test and use up her sick time simultaneously. 

“I’m not the only nurse who is dealing with this or talking about this issue,” Gatton said.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the newly proposed contract included various policy changes — many of which were directly related to the pandemic — including replenished paid leave for nurses who exhausted their leave due to COVID-19. Nurses also demanded increased base salaries.

Kossel spoke to the value of paid sick leave and described the measure as a vital step in promoting wellbeing for hospital staff. The newly drafted agreement between Meriter and its employees adds 60 hours of paid sick leave to nurses’ banks.

“Meriter is the only hospital who does this and the only hospital that made their nurses use their own time when they caught COVID,” Kossel said. 

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Kossel said the agreed upon contract also granted nurses the ability to renew negotiations in the event of another public health crisis and provided incentive pay to work overtime. 

The official UnityPoint Health – Meriter Nurse contract agreement also included provisions to increase financial support for nurses pursuing further education and 2.6% wage increases in both 2021 and 2022 to retain and recruit nurses.

University of Wisconsin Professor Michael Childers is a faculty member in the School of Workers, a UW labor education program. He said medical worker unions are more favorably viewed by the public because they provide an essential service, but said he believes all laborers should have an opportunity to organize.

“Worker unions, regardless of sector, are formed to give workers a voice in their workplace,” Childers said. “Wisconsin was the first state in the union to actually formally recognize public sector workers’ rights with the labor peace act of 1959.”

According to FindLaw, former Gov. Scott Walker also passed the “Right to Work” legislation in 2015. Right to Work laws prohibit private-sector employers and unions from requiring monthly dues from non-union workers. These dues provide funding for union organizations to engage in collective bargaining.

According to Childers, Wisconsin is known for a complicated history with regards to union laws.

“We were the first state to allow for legal public sector bargaining, and we were also a state that set a precedent in 2011 where those rights were basically rolled back,” Childers said.

Scott Walker’s 2011 Act 10 took away public sector unions’ rights. Act 10 legally ended union representation for UW health employees specifically. Nurses protested Act 10 for years and asked UW to voluntarily recognize a UW nurses union, according to Isthmus.

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According to Kossel, the nurses at Meriter also support nurses in other hospitals should they choose to unionize as well. 

“UW and St. Mary’s nurses both deserve the ability to unionize and the nurses at Meriter are in full support and look forward to advocating for their voices as well,” Kossel said.