Council to consider supporting IU Health nurses union

(WISH Photo, file)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Monday night, the Indianapolis City-County Council will consider a resolution in support of the nurses working to form a union at IU Health hospitals. Councilor LaKeisha Jackson said she is introducing the resolution because all nurses should have the right to form a union if that is what they want to do. Jackson said she expects the resolution to pass.

The resolution will be the latest development in a debate that has been ongoing for months — some say even years — inside the IU Health community. 24-Hour News 8 reported the story in April, when several nurses warned of unsafe practices and nurse-to-patient ratios that they said were putting patient care at risk. Those nurses were working to form a nursing union in order to have their concerns heard. Since that story aired, many nurses came out echoing those same worries, but some offered different solutions to the problems. IU Health has only released brief statements about the situation, but does not want to see a nursing union.

Cynthia Wood worked as a registered nurse for 40 years. The majority of her career was spent in the cardiovascular critical care (CVCC) unit. She said she watched her workload grow and become more overwhelming in recent years.

“Staffing had gotten so bad that I wasn’t really able to do my job without leaving at the end of the day feeling disappointed and just bad about my work,” said Wood.

Lacie Little holds sign saying why she supports unionizing.
Lacie Little holds sign saying why she supports unionizing.

Finally Wood decided to retire early after another especially discouraging shift.

“I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had left yet another day feeling disappointed in myself, frustrated and heartbroken for the patient that got so little of my care,” said Wood. “That day it was just heartbreaking for me. While the one patient had urgent needs that I had to attend to, the other patient got neglected. I felt heartbroken and discouraged and the thing is – it wasn’t just me and my assignment. It was all of the assignments around me. Every nurse around me was just as busy, or busier than I was. The thing is — it wasn’t just that day, it was every day. It had been a problem for months if not years.”

Wood has not only experienced IU Health from a nurse’s perspective, but also from the perspective of a patient’s spouse. Last week, Wood’s husband was in a serious motorcycle accident. Previously, he was hospitalized for severe pneumonia.

“Scott had gotten very sick and very weak, and needed basic nursing care. They were not able to give that. I ended up spending night and day, night and day, helping him with meals, toileting, bathing, all the things that nurses do every day,” said Wood.

Wood said the nurses were kind and competent, but too busy.

“Bed alarms would go off, and it would take a while for them to respond,” said Wood, adding she felt like she had to stay to take care of him.

Hear more from Wood in this extended interview:

(REPORT CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO)

Her experiences as a patient’s spouse were more reasons for Wood to continue to fight for her former co-worker’s right to form a union, even after retiring last month. It’s the same fight that registered nurse Lacie Little took up earlier this year after attending a union information session.

“It was empowering, I would say, to hear that I wasn’t the only one experiencing the problems and the troubles that I was experiencing. (I thought) wow, this is not a local problem, this is a systemic problem,” said Little.

A State Health Department report from February backs up some of the nurses’ claims. The report found IU Health “failed to ensure adequate numbers of licensed and unlicensed personnel were available to meet the needs of patients” at IU Health Methodist Hospital.

IU Health submitted a plan to the health department to fix the problems. In a statement, IU Health told 24-Hour News 8 “Part of the challenge in any care facility, let alone a Level 1 trauma center and the busiest hospital in the state, is balancing the patient care to staffing ratio. IU Health is meeting the rise in patients with hiring, and has added nearly 350 nurses downtown since the beginning of the year.”

Still, the nurses who spoke to 24-Hour News 8 have not found relief. Little became involved in the effort to organize a union back in February. Little said she started inviting nurses to information sessions, and sharing union literature to interested coworkers. But she says she was cautious about what she did while on company time versus during her breaks.

Soon after, she says she was terminated for “gross misconduct.” Little still isn’t sure what exactly that misconduct entails. Little said she was shocked after being terminated. She said she knew IU Health wasn’t in favor of the union, and had a feeling she was in trouble when she was called in for a meeting.

“I thought they would say ‘You can’t do this.’ And I was prepared to say ‘OK cool. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was crossing a line. I’ll just talk about this outside of work. No big deal.’ Instead I got fired,” said Little.

IU Health would not talk to 24-Hour News 8 about Little’s termination, but Little and her coworkers point to the same reason for her firing.

“I believe that they fired me to slow down the union momentum. I believe that they fired me to basically silence my voice,” said Little.

“(Little) is an outstanding nurse. She’d be someone that would be among first choices to take care of anybody I knew. When the hospital fired Lacie, they fired somebody who was truly a gift to nursing and a gift to IU Health,” said Wood.

Despite the high praise from other nurses, Little insists she’s just a typical nurse.

Registered nurse Cindy Wood at work.
Registered nurse Cindy Wood at work.

“Whether they want a union or not, all the nurses have the same goal: to get our patients better,” Little.

There are a significant number of nurses who are against forming a union at IU Health. Still, those nurses recognize there are issues within the hospitals that need to be fixed.

“Do we need changes? We need changes. I am not naive. I have seen things change. I have worked for IU Health for 17 years and I have seen the changes,” said registered nurse Monica Hammerly.

Nurses like Hammerly and Bonnie Moore said a union would only complicate matters.

“We’re professionals. We can go above and beyond,” said Moore.

They believe nurses need to take it upon themselves to solve the problems that exist by forming action plans and committees. Through committees, the nurses hope they’d be able to express their concerns to upper management.

“Change your ratios back. Allow us to talk to you. Allow us to be a part of your decisions. Just give us more of a chance to voice who we are,” said Moore.

Hammerly and Moore said they are willing to simply deal with many of the issues, because they believe it’s part of nursing in a health care system focused on the bottom line.

Hear more from the nurses in this bonus web-only video:

(REPORT CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO)

“I work 48-60 hours a week for IU Health … because I love taking care of people,” said Moore. “We do the best we can in the time that we have. If it means that we may chart a little later or we may not get a lunch because we don’t want to leave our patients, that’s our choice.”

A statement from IU Health echoes that sentiment: “It is the responsibility of the organization and its nurses to work together to created the desired work environment and job satisfaction.”

Moore also believes nurses have not done enough to express the severity of the situation to upper management.

“Did we really voice our opinions continually, besides between ourselves? Did we really go all the way up? I know I didn’t,” said Moore.

The nurses fighting for a union could not disagree more.

“I honestly feel like we’ve tried everything else,” said Wood. “I feel like we have advocated for ourselves. We have told our stories. We’ve done the best we could to advocate for our patients, because that’s what it’s really all about.

Little echoed Wood’s comments.

“That was another big factor for me, knowing that I have talked with upper management. I have relayed my concerns and I’ve even made suggestions on how to fix things. My voice was heard by them, but nothing was done. That gave me more encouragement to, rather than just having my voice – we need a collective voice. We need to have nurses saying that it’s not just one person. It’s all of us that are fearing this,” said Little.

Now, Little’s case is being taken up by the National Labor Relations Board. IU Health faces several other charges including intimidation and retaliation. If the board finds the charges could carry weight, they could go to trial. Little hopes through this process, she’ll get back the only job she wants – her old job at IU Health.

No matter which side of the union debate the nurses fall, all the nurses can agree on one thing.

“We’re fighting. Whether pro-union or not. The nurses are fighting for our patients every day,” said Wood.

“My coworkers, even the people that are pro-union, they are very loving, carrying people. We have the same common goal. That is to provide our patients with the best possible care we can provide,” said Hammerly.

Despite the struggles of the past few months, Little remains positive about the situation.

“I really feel like it (IU Health) can be not only what it once was, but it can be even better. If we can create this new dialogue between the upper management and the nurses, think of all the power that could come from that – rather than just running the hospital from the top down,” said Little, “There’s a lot of hope in this situation.”

United Steelworkers, the union working with the nurses, said they need to have signatures from 30 percent of the nurses at IU Health in order to vote on bringing in a union. The union said it’s on track, and leaders expect the vote to happen sometime in June.

Little hopes to hear word about her case and the other National Labor Relations board charges in the next two weeks.

Read the full report on IU Health from the Indiana State Department of Health:

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