Employees at Regina Medical Center walked off the job today, commencing a two-day strike to protest the hospital’s current contract proposal. The 230 employees, represented by Service Employees International Union Healthcare Minnesota, include nurses’ aids, custodial workers and x-ray technicians.
The current three-year contract expired at the end of October, and there are no additional contract negotiations planned. Unlike most recent labor disputes, the chief stumbling block here isn’t healthcare coverage, but rather employee retirement accounts.
“We are here to save our pensions,” said Jan Salo, who has sterilized surgical tools at the facility for 20 years, at a rally this afternoon in front of the facility in Hastings. “Management wants to slash our pensions. We want to be able to retire with dignity and security, and we’re here to fight for it.”
Currently Regina Medical Center pays the equivalent of eight percent of an employee’s salary into a pension plan if the worker has at least five years of experience and four percent for more recent hires. Under the medical center’s proposed change, the company would automatically contribute two percent into each employee’s retirement fund. If the worker then chooses to put part of their own salary into the plan, Regina would match that commitment up to an additional six percent of the individual’s wages for people who have worked there more than five years and three percent for newer employees.
To put this in concrete terms, if an employee currently makes $31,408 annually (a typical wage for a housekeeper), the company contributes $2,512.64 towards a retirement fund for anyone who has been working there for at least five years and half that amount for more recent hires. Under Regina’s proposed change the company would automatically contribute $628.16 to the worker’s pension plan each year. If the employee then chooses to put in additional money, the medical center would match it dollar-for-dollar up to an additional $1,884.48 for workers that have been there five years.
According to Judy Misencik, marketing director at the medical facility, the cutbacks are necessary to bring the company’s pension commitments into line with industry standards and help it weather a wretched economic climate. “Like many healthcare organizations throughout the state, we’ve seen a downturn in our volume,” she says, noting that in order to cut costs the hospital has also laid off employees and not filled vacant positions. “People who maybe have elective procedures that they’d like to have done are putting that off because of the economy.”
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Senate Assistant Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, along with a handful of labor leaders from other unions, showed up at the rally to show support for the workers. “You’re just trying to hold on to your basic pension,” Clark told the crowd. “The administration needs to come back to the table. They need to be looking at other alternatives.”
Linda Slattengren, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said that her union fully supports the strike. “Regina hospital’s attack on the pensions of our brothers and sisters in SEIU is unethical and it’s highway robbery,” she said. “A pension is a promise — a promise by the employer to assure a safe senior life to dedicated workers.”
There was a negotiation session last Monday, but no further talks are scheduled. Regina has deemed the current proposal its final offer. “They told us that unless we were willing to accept exactly what they had on the table there was no room for talk,” said Salo. “They didn’t want to negotiate with us at all.”
Misencik maintains that the two-day walkout hasn’t affected client services at the medical facility, which includes a hospital, nursing home and assisted living center. “We have our contingency plans in place,” she says, noting that the company is utilizing temporary workers and former employees to keep things running. “We actually had more people who showed up to help this morning than we needed and we sent some people home.”