For Immediate Release: Monday, Jan. 17, 2022
Contact: Dave Bates, 347-865-8038, firstname.lastname@example.org
Frontline Workers Hold Rally and Launch Giant Mobile Billboard Calling on Gundersen to “Respect and Invest in Healthcare Heroes for Quality Care”
Tensions have flared as Gundersen–which has made massive profits–presented its “last and final offer” in union contract negotiations, and workers rejected it by a 94% vote.
La Crosse, WI- As COVID continues to surge across La Crosse County, over 100 frontline Gundersen workers and community supporters held a rally and launched a giant mobile billboard calling on executives to “Respect and invest in healthcare heroes for quality care.” The rally took place Monday, Jan. 17 from 3:30-5:30 pm near Gundersen Medical Center in La Crosse, Wis. Workers and U.S. Congressional candidate Rebecca Cooke addressed the crowd during a press conference. The action was in response to Gundersen executives’ “last and final offer” in union contract negotiations, which workers voted resoundingly to reject by a 94% vote. Workers also honored the spirit and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a great champion of working people.
Throughout the pandemic, Gundersen workers have been risking their lives and their families’ lives on the front lines to keep the health system running and provide quality care to their community. But despite massive profits, Gundersen pays these workers inadequate and unfair wages which have not kept up with the skyrocketing cost of living, and workers are struggling to make ends meet. Not only are Gundersen workers underpaid, but they are also suffering from extreme burnout and physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. Inadequate wages, combined with disrespect from executives, have contributed to severe understaffing and turnover, which workers fear could impact the safety and quality of patient care.
“In environmental services, we are essential members of the healthcare delivery team, because we’re the front line of infection control,” said Jill King, an environmental assistant who has 23 years of service at Gundersen Medical Center. “In the labor and delivery department where I work, we’re responsible for ensuring our mothers and babies have an environment that is thoroughly disinfected, sanitized, safe and clean. It’s a great honor to be able to help and protect our patients, and I take deep pride in my work. But it’s become much harder to do our jobs because of severe understaffing made worse by low wages, and COVID has aggravated these conditions. My workload has at least doubled in the past year. On top of all this stress, we have been subjected to a lack of respect and consideration from management. They have made us feel worthless and unappreciated. As a result, long time workers are leaving Gundersen, making us even more understaffed. We just want to be treated like human beings, and be able to pay our bills and feed our families.”
Gundersen is extremely financially healthy, and has more than enough resources to invest in the workforce to improve recruitment and retention of staff. The medical center had over $371 million in total profits in 2019 and 2020, the last full years that IRS data are available.
Around 425 certified nursing assistants and workers in environmental services, dietary, laundry, maintenance, logistics, and other vital jobs at Gundersen Medical Center--along with About 50 paramedics and emergency medical technicians at Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance--have been calling for fair compensation in their union contract negotiations. Gundersen Medical Center has been paying some positions as little as $11.40 an hour--poverty-level wages--for years.
After workers spoke out forcefully at work and in the press, executives recently agreed to implement a $15 minimum wage, but said workers who make more than that at Gundersen Medical Center would only get a one-time 3% raise. Workers point out that does not even keep up with the spiraling cost of living, and according to an MIT study, a living wage for a single parent of one child is $29.37 per hour in La Crosse County. Gundersen Medical Center workers have rejected management’s contract offer, while Tri-State Ambulance workers are still in mediation for their contract.
“We all want to do the best job possible for our patients, but severe understaffing, which has been worsened by unfair wages, makes that very difficult,” said Arm Rony, who has been a certified nursing assistant at Gundersen Medical Center for 12 years. “And now low staffing levels have created an all-out crisis throughout Gundersen during this pandemic. Dedicated workers are leaving Gundersen, and not enough is being done to recruit and retain employees. All we want is to feel appreciated for our hard work, not through words but through concrete deeds. As a father of three children, this is very personal for me, because it’s about their future as well. All of us working at Gundersen want the best quality care and good jobs for our families, our neighbors and for everyone in La Crosse.”
Workers say that unjust compensation is morally wrong, and goes against Gundersen Health System’s stated values of enhancing “the health and well-being of our communities, while enriching every life we touch, including patients, families, and staff.” Unfair wages also go against Wisconsin values, and the values that America aspires to, which hold that if you work hard and contribute positively to society, you should be able to provide a life of dignity and a better future for yourself and your family.
In addition to the mobile billboard, Gundersen workers have also launched a website, RespectGundersenHeroes.org, and are rolling out a social media campaign with the hashtag #RespectGundersenHeroes. Workers have vowed to do whatever it takes to hold executives accountable so they respect and invest in staff, and the La Crosse community can receive the safest, highest quality care.
SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin is the state’s largest and fastest-growing healthcare workers union, and their mission is to win quality care and good jobs for all. They represent thousands of hospital, nursing home, home care, and social service workers.