June 20, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
More than 1,000 Local 1199 SEIU members picketed outside Mount Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side June 18, protesting a contract-talks proposal by the city’s nonprofit hospitals and nursing homes to make “radical changes” in workers’ health benefits.
The crowd, mostly women and many wearing blue hospital scrubs, packed a block of Madison Avenue at East 100th Street, waving purple union pennants, chanting loudly, and cheering when passing truckers, car-service cabbies, and Access-A-Ride paratransit drivers honked in support. Local 1199 members also did “informational picketing” outside numerous other hospitals in the city and suburbs.“They want to completely restructure our benefits,” said registered nurse Elaine Iorio. “We’ll go from paying nothing to paying a monthly premium and copays. And no raise.”
Specifically, said Local 1199 president George Gresham, the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes—the association that represents 109 hospitals and nursing homes in negotiations with the union, whose current contract expires July 15—proposed requiring members to pay premiums based on family size, with copayments and deductibles for the care they use. Members now have fully covered benefits with no out-of-pocket payments.
The League insists it has taken that proposal off the table. “We are not contemplating the introduction of copays or assessments for any of the system’s beneficiaries or dependents,” it said in a statement by president Bruce McIver dated June 18. A league spokesperson added that the nonprofit hospitals currently pay about 15% more per worker into 1199’s benefit fund than for-profit health-care businesses such as drugstores do, and want to stop “subsidizing” them.
For over 40 years, 1199’s benefit fund, which covers more than 110,000 members, has been financed by employers paying a percentage of their payroll, a spokesperson for the union responds. This means that a large hospital with registered nurses will pay more per capita than a small nursing home, but it’s “the fairest, most effective way” to ensure that all workers get comprehensive health care. The League dropped its original proposal for premiums and copays, he says, but still wants to change the financing system to flat payments—which would cause lower-paying employers to cut or drop benefits and eventually “destabilize the entire fund.”
The metropolitan area’s five largest hospital systems can easily afford to continue the current way of paying, he adds: They took in more than $21 billion in revenue in 2013, and their CEOs’ pay has more than quintupled in the last 10 years. In contrast, 1199 members’ salaries went up by only 24% during that period.
“We’re not believing that they’ve changed their proposal, just that they’ve changed their strategy,” Gresham says. Health-care workers getting good health care has been a longstanding principle of the union, he added, and the picketing was intended to send a message that “we deserve better treatment than we’ve been getting in negotiations.”
“Many of my patients have compromised immune systems,” said Neyra Smiling, a registered nurse at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in Brooklyn, one of the speakers at the rally. “I need to make sure that I don’t bring any illness to work, because even a small cold could send one of my patients to the emergency room.”
“Hospital CEOs want you to think that our health care is a free perk of the job,” said Angie Perez, a clinical laboratory technician in the blood bank at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, “but we’ve earned our health-care benefits, and we need them to continue saving lives every day.”
A second major issue in the talks, the 1199 spokesperson said, is that the big five hospital systems are opening outpatient and ambulatory care clinics—a growing trend in the health-care industry—and these are nonunion and pay workers only $10 to $12 an hour.