Hospital staffdownsizes as merger nears

Bei Hu

University Hospital officials reported a significant staffing reduction as more than one 10th of its employees have left.
As officials continue to plan a merger with Fairview Health System that would involve laying off some staff members, some University Hospital employees are looking for more stable employment elsewhere. University Hospital administrators, who initiated a hiring control policy last winter, say they are not shaken by employees’ departures.
The University Hospital has lost the equivalent of about 400 full-time employees to voluntary departures and layoffs since July 1995, said John G. Erickson, the hospital’s human resources manager. Officials estimated how many employees have departed by determining the number of hours for which administrators no longer have to pay employees. But the actual number of staff members lost may be higher because many University hospital employees don’t work full time.
Pauline Amey, vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1164, said the number of employees leaving the hospital illustrates workers’ fears about losing their jobs once University Hospital merges with Fairview Health System.
“A lot of people are moving on now and not waiting,” Amey said.
Many people are leaving the hospital to find job security and health insurance even though their new jobs pay less, Amey added.
Others left voluntarily when departments were downsizing, said Amey, who works as a pharmacy technician at the hospital. During these times, some department heads asked employees if any would voluntarily leave, Amey said. Erickson estimated that University Hospital has laid off fewer than 50 people in the past year.
Five of Amey’s co-workers have quit their jobs for the severance package University Hospital offered in exchange for voluntary resignation, she said.
The severance package offers employees who worked 60 hours or more a pay period at the hospital one week of salary for every year they were employed by the University, Amey said. Those who have worked more than 10 years at the hospital prior to their resignations will also get free insurance coverage for 18 months, she added.
Some saw this package as especially attractive because they were ready to move on to new jobs, or were in danger of being laid off because they are “close to the bottom of the seniority list,” Amey said.
Peter Rapp, the hospital’s general director, and would-be co-director of the merged Fairview-University Medical Center, did not find the number of departures disturbing.
But, he described the staffing reduction as “dramatic” even in comparison with downsizings at other hospitals. He attributed the reduction to both voluntary departures and a hiring control policy that has been in place at the hospital since the final quarter of 1995.
The hiring control policy requires senior hospital administrators to approve the filling of positions that do not specify an end date of employment.
Erickson said, administrators have been imposing hiring constraints in an effort to maintain a level of staffing that matches the number of University Hospital patients.
Rapp and Erickson said all the measures taken, including the few layoffs that have occurred, are not related to the planned merger with Fairview Health System.
Calling the staffing reduction “a great positive accomplishment,” Rapp said, “We’re looking critically at whether we can change our processes and procedures in a way to reduce having to hire new persons. And through that, we’ll be financially viable and protect the jobs of people on the payroll.”
He added, “If you look at the health employment all around, it’s a key required action that we took.”
Rapp said all staffing reductions have been carefully choreographed to make sure they would not jeopardize health care quality. But, in some cases, hospital employees will probably need to work harder and be more efficient to make up the difference.
Rapp did not rule out the possibility of hiring back people who are currently laid off. Although, he said, the number of staff members many hospitals use continues to shrink in response to reduced inpatient admissions.