A group representing service and support workers demonstrated outside an Appleton hospital Tuesday, saying low wages are fueling staff turnover and hurting patient care
The Service and Employees International Union Healthcare Wisconsin, or SEIU, represents about 67 team members at ThedaCare Regional Medical Center–Appleton. The union and health care system have been in negotiations since June, with the union calling for wage increases for workers.
Jan Hohn, a food service assistant at the hospital, said she can’t afford anything but the basics on her pay. Those low wages, she said, mean that workers are continuously leaving for new jobs.
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“Some of my coworkers and colleagues who are CNAs and housekeepers are the highlights of the patient’s day,” she said. “They are the ones who interact with the patients the most and create relationships with them. All of this turnover has been affected in the relationships they can foster and the amount that they can spend with each patient.”
According to the SEIU, ThedaCare has six sterile processing technicians — paid less than $18 an hour — to clean all the surgical instruments for the organization’s seven hospitals. The union also said certified nursing assistants, or CNAs, and housekeeping staff at ThedaCare start at $14.22 per hour.
ThedaCare declined to say whether those wages were accurate, but said it continues negotiating in good faith. In a statement, the health care provider said the SEIU represents about 1 percent of the health system’s employees. The hospital said it presented an “across-the-board wage offer” and “additional wage increases for market adjustments” to the union.
“SEIU has yet to present ThedaCare’s offer to our team members represented by this group,” ThedaCare said in a statement. “We believe these team members should have the opportunity to vote on, and benefit from, the solid wage package we have offered.”
But the SEIU says the workers it represents were not satisfied with the hospital’s offer. They said it provides a 2.5 percent wage increase that doesn’t keep up with inflation.
“The proposed 2.5 percent raise would only give some of us $14 more a month,” said Mark Heinrich, who has been a cook at ThedaCare for nearly a decade. “Offering this low raise is showing us, the workers, how much ThedaCare values our work. In the end, not very much.”
The health system faced scrutiny last year, when ThedaCare sued Ascension Wisconsin to prevent seven employees from leaving for jobs with Ascension until ThedaCare could find replacements. ThedaCare ultimately dropped its lawsuit after a judge lifted an order blocking the employees from leaving.
Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson appeared at the event organized by the union outside the hospital. He said that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the important role health care workers play in the health and well-being of the Fox Cities.
“We talk about how we need to treat our frontline health care workers, our health care workers and all workers in general as heroes,” he said. “We need to pay them like heroes.”
Fox Valley Labor Council President Mark Westphal said Tuesday’s gathering at ThedaCare was “just a sample of what’s happening” across the county, as workers are demanding increases in wages and benefits. He also said the ThedaCare employees asking for better compensation were on the front lines of the pandemic.
“They showed up every day, despite the hazards, while their bosses isolated at home and managed via Zoom,” he said. “It is about respect. It is about dignity. But it’s also about wages and a fair living. That’s what these workers are doing.”
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