By Jesse Marx
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By CP Staff
Elva Neubauer has worked as a housekeeper at United Hospital in St. Paul for 13 years, cleaning patient rooms, scrubbing bathrooms, and emptying wastebaskets. But Neubauer says her job is more than simply keeping the hospital dirt-free. She often has more interaction with patients on a daily basis than the doctors responsible for their care. "If they're depressed and lonely I sing a song for them," says Neubauer. "Our job is not just cleaning; our job is much more than that. It's too bad they don't see it that way."
Neubauer makes $14.33 an hour, and up until last year she also had subsidized health insurance for her four children between the ages of 3 and 9. But escalating costs forced the single mom to drop the health care plan in November. In the last year alone, she says, her biweekly premium had risen by roughly $60, bringing the monthly cost for family coverage to $504--more than a third of her take-home pay.
"I had to drop my insurance for my children because it's too expensive," laments Neubauer. "I'm very ashamed about that. I don't want to be begging to the government for insurance."
Neubauer is far from alone in finding herself in the paradoxical situation of being a hospital employee who can't afford health insurance. Service Employees International Union, Local 113, estimates that 44 percent of its 5,900 members currently negotiating a new labor contract with metro-area hospitals don't have any health insurance. On average, employees must now pay 23 percent of their pre-tax income to cover family health insurance, and the costs continue to escalate at an alarming rate. The monthly premium for family coverage at the five area hospitals run by Allina Hospitals and Clinics increased by $256 last year.
The cost of health insurance is the primary point of conflict in the increasingly contentious labor negotiations between the union and area hospitals. Local 113 represents the blue-collar backbone of medical staffs. Its ranks include physical therapists, cafeteria workers, nursing assistants, and laundry employees, earning an average hourly wage of $12.96.
After three months of negotiations, Local 113's contract is set to expire this week. If a settlement is not reached, the Twin Cities could face its second strike by hospital employees in two years. Nurses employed by Fairview Health Systems walked off the job for 23 days in June 2001.
The opposing sides offer starkly different views of the negotiations. "It's gonna expire and we're gonna take action," says Kathy Fodness, executive vice president of Local 113 and the union's chief negotiator. "Our membership is saying, This is it. We're not going to accept a package that doesn't make health care affordable for our members."
"I feel good about where we're at," counters Patrick McDonnell, vice president of labor relations at the Minnesota Hospital Association, which represents nine of the 14 facilities involved in negotiations. "We have in excess of a 50-year history of negotiations with this union without work stoppages."
In recent weeks Local 113 has increased the pressure on the hospitals. Last Wednesday 400-plus union supporters rallied at Stewart Park, in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. The union also filed three complaints with the National Labor Relations Board last week alleging that Allina broke the law by denying union members access to conference rooms to discuss the labor negotiations.
It's not the first time that area hospitals have been charged with violating labor laws. Following the 2001 nurses' strike, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that nine hospitals had illegally conspired to deny jobs to striking nurses who applied for open positions at other facilities. The hospitals were ordered to issue back pay to 19 affected employees.
Ballooning insurance premiums are certainly not unique to the health care sector. According to Hewitt Associates, a Lincolnshire, Illinois, company that tracks employment trends, employee health insurance costs increased 10.8 percent last year and are expected to swell by 24.2 percent this year.
Kendra Calhoun, Allina's vice president for communications, maintains that the nonprofit corporation wants to cut health-insurance premiums, but that to do so will require concessions from the union on other issues. "We do have limited resources and if you grab the balloon on one end it pops out on the other," Calhoun says.
Health care costs are certainly not the only issue complicating negotiations. The two sides are also divided on how much money the hospitals should pony up for pensions. According to Local 113, the employers currently contribute $2.5 million annually toward pension funds for the union's 5,900 members. Local 113 wants the employer payout increased to $7.5 million, a figure the hospitals have so far rejected.
The union is also seeking concessions on rules governing organizing drives at the hospitals. For example, Local 113 is asking for a policy whereby if a majority of workers in a unit sign cards saying that they want to join the union, the bargaining unit would automatically be certified, eliminating the need for a formal election.
Health care, however, will remain the key to any solution. Tee McClenty, an emergency room technician at HealthEast St. John's Hospital in Maplewood, dropped her family coverage last year. In recent years her monthly premium had skyrocketed to $376. It's now cheaper to cover her three children on her husband's health care plan at County Market, where he works as a meat cutter. "He actually was shocked when he found out," says McClenty, a member of Local 113's negotiating team.
McClenty believes that such spiraling costs have convinced the union's members that they need to make a stand. "This is real. People are saying, 'We're not going to accept this anymore.'"
Elva Neubauer, the United Hospital housekeeper who was forced to drop her family coverage in November, echoes that sentiment: "In my place many people would shut their mouth, thinking, 'I could lose my job for saying this,'" she says. "But we have to fight. We have no choice."