Fine print troubles hospital workers

by Lynne Kozarek

Tempers flared this week among the University employees affected by the University-Fairview hospital merger. The employees are upset because they are being called upon to sign away their rights to receive severance pay.
Last spring the Legislature appropriated funds to make the financial transition from University Hospital to Fairview Health Systems easier on the affected employees.
The plan includes $3.6 million, half from the state and half from the University, to cover the difference between University and Fairview wages and benefits during the first year of post-merger employment.
So far, the transition plan only covers nonunion employees. The University hopes to reach an agreement soon to develop a transition plan for union employees.
University hospital administrators are meeting with the local Teamsters union and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Workers to finish the plan.
The transition money sounded like a great deal to many University hospital employees, such as Tom Kelly, a nurse at University Hospital — until he read the fine print.
University plans call for the transition payments to be made in a lump sum at the end of January, but to receive payment of these benefits employees must sign a form acknowledging that they are making the transition to Fairview. Affected employees must waive their rights to file a grievance concerning eligibility for the University layoff-nonrenewal program.
The program allows laid-off employees to opt for a severance package and receive money and some health care benefits, but the employees must receive a layoff or nonrenewal notice to be eligible for the program.
Kelly said he resents the fact that the University is attempting to get employees to waive these rights, and he feels the school has overstepped its authority.
“The University is using this money as a carrot to shield themselves from possible problems,” Kelly said.
Bruce Iverson, business representative of AFSCME Council 6 which represents Fairview and University hospital workers, said that the union is bargaining with the University about how the funds will be spent.
“It appears the University is attempting to bargain directly with employees and possibly taking unilateral action,” Iverson said.
Direct bargaining and unilateral action violate employee union agreements, Iverson said.
Iverson, Farmer, and president of AFSCME Local 1164 Geoff Hahn all said that it was most difficult to deal with these issues because the final terms of the Fairview-University merger have not been released.
Dr. Frank Cerra, provost of the Academic Health Center, said that since the merger will take place January 1, and that details will be made public as soon as possible.
Until the plan goes public, however, union negotiations are difficult to handle.
“We pretty much know with the hospital who is going where,” Iverson said. “It’s the clinics that are the bigger problems. This is a horrendous thing, and change could be happening at any time.”
Hahn said that the shroud of secrecy surrounding the merger plan was the biggest problem in union negotiations.
“Nobody knows who is going to have a job,” Hahn said. “All they (University and Fairview administrators) will say is that people will at least have a job on January 2, but on January 3 who knows?”
Eugenia McGrath, a registered nurse at University hospital, said she will be losing her job on January 1.
“We were asking questions of the administration months ago,” McGrath said. “We won’t get unemployment insurance because technically the University didn’t lay us off and also because Fairview never hired us.”
Jeanette Louden, Human Resources Project leader for the Fairview-University merger, said that she has received mixed reaction to the plan.
“The University is trying to provide employees with a good transition to Fairview,” Louden said. “This plan is not intended as a distraction.”
Louden also said that the University is paying far more to the employees who are receiving money in the transitional plan than was originally allocated.