UCHealth workers to form union, citing COVID-19 ‘crisis within a crisis’

Employees of quasi-public hospital system lack collective bargaining rights

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A group of nurses and other health care workers at UCHealth announced Tuesday that they are forming a union aimed at addressing longstanding concerns about staffing, workplace safety and inadequate patient care across Colorado’s largest hospital system.

UCHealth Workers United says it will organize staff members across all job titles and locations in the UCHealth system, which employs more than 25,000 people at seven major hospitals and dozens of clinics across the state. UCHWU is organizing under Communications Workers of America Local 7799.

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In a press release, the group said that its members, including many UCHealth nurses, have long feared that low staffing levels and high turnover rates were putting the quality of patient care within the hospital system at risk. The coronavirus pandemic has only strained Colorado hospital capacity further and exacerbated those concerns, a situation that the group described as a “crisis within a crisis.”

Members of UCHWU wish to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution from their employer, a CWA representative said.

“We are not unionizing because of the pandemic,” a UCHealth nurse said in a statement. “The pandemic has exposed the need for a union.”

“Staffing is always a problem,” said another UCHealth employee. “The decisions that have set us up to be understaffed were made before the pandemic to maximize profit and operating margins. It is not the best way to run a healthcare system.”

As employees of a “quasi-public” entity — the University of Colorado Hospital Authority, established by an act of the state Legislature in 1991 — UCHealth workers lack certain organizing rights. Under Colorado law, UHCWU won’t be able to force hospital management to recognize the union or negotiate a formal collective bargaining agreement.

“Our mentality is that it’s not collective bargaining that’s going to get changes through, it’s the collective action and the collective voice,” said Helenna Chun, an organizer with CWA Local 7799. “So our big focus is getting public support. Right now we have public support. We’re in a pandemic.”

The unionizing effort announced Tuesday is the second such drive in Colorado this year, amid a nationwide wave of labor organizing at hospitals and other health-care providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers at Denver Health, another quasi-public agency, launched a similar organizing effort under CWA Local 7799 in May, and have focused on petition drives and public outreach rather than a formal bargaining process. Denver Health Workers United’s efforts have drawn support from local elected officials, while the group’s members have accused hospital administrators of union-busting.

In a statement issued Tuesday, UCHealth said that protecting employees has remained its top priority throughout the pandemic, and touted what it called its “highly competitive” salary and benefits packages.

“All hospitals are focused on staffing right now during the pandemic,” said Dan Weaver, the system’s vice president of communications. “UCHealth’s staffing levels are similar to most hospitals at this time, and we have redeployed many staff members from other areas and brought in external traveler nurses to help support our inpatient care teams while providing free meals for those on all shifts and offering well-being and many other resources.”

Update, 2:04 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comments from Helenna Chun and Dan Weaver.

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