Hospital workers set to sue U

by Joel Sawyer

Some University Hospital workers are expected to file suit against the University in federal court today demanding that the school live up to a contract it signed with union employees.
The suit, which will be filed on behalf of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1164, will ask the courts to allow AFSCME workers to choose severance options in their contract that will not be allowed when the Hospital merges with Fairview Health System in January.
At that time, some hospital workers will lose their union status and University benefits and become employees of Fairview.
“(The University) is playing games with our lives because they don’t want to live up to what’s in our contracts,” said Geoff Hahn, president of AFSCME Local 1164.
Hahn said the University was reneging on a severance clause that has been part of workers’ contracts for years. The severance language, he said, allows workers to choose from three options if involuntary severance from the University occurs.
Under the terms of the severance package, Hahn said, employees have the option of staying at the University by placing their names in an employment pool that is used to fill positions internally. Or they can leave by accepting severance pay or an early retirement option.
John E. Erickson, director of employee relations and compensation at the University, said union workers are mistaken.
Erickson said the University is not breaking the union contract and that severance pay is only meant for people who receive a layoff notice.
“If we don’t execute a layoff notice, you don’t get severance,” he said. “(AFSCME) is trying to argue that somehow we have executed that layoff notice, and we’re in disagreement with that.”
But the AFSCME members feel they are entitled to severance.
“None of those options have been given to the employees,” said Ruth Bettendorf, a hospital worker and AFSCME member. “They’ve put a gun to our head and said here, this is the job you take, you take it for the wages you get. It doesn’t matter what crap you end up with, be happy with it, whistling the Rouser down the hallway’,” Bettendorf said. “That’s unacceptable.”
Bettendorf was referring to a recent television commercial promoting the merger in which hospital employees were depicted whistling the school song while working.
Many hospital employees are afraid that they will be laid off shortly after they become Fairview employees, Bettendorf said, and will receive a lesser severance package than at the University.
“All we’re asking for is an option,” Bettendorf said. “They don’t seem to notice anything until you start talking lawsuit.”