Health care workers rally for higher wages ‘across the board’

Jun 27, 2022

Tobey Hospital workers donned ponchos Monday afternoon to rally in the rain for higher wages.

Holding up signs and soliciting honks from passing cars, the workers spent their lunch breaks and time off protesting at Besse Park, across the street from Tobey Hospital.

Contract negotiations between the bargaining committee and Southcoast Health are ongoing, protesters said, after beginning in April. The rally was organized by the national health care union 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

“We just want the hospital to give fair raises to everyone,” Tobey Hospital lab unit coordinator Wanda Johnson said.

Johnson took the day off work to attend the rally, she said. Her daughter, Patsy Biffar, came from Plymouth to Besse Park to support her, bringing along Biffar’s 3-year-old son Mikey.

“Today is mainly just to let [Southcoast Health] know,” Johnson said.

She spoke to the concerns some employees have over their wages and hours, especially after years of serving as health care workers in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

Johnson said some feel that health care workers at Tobey are paid less compared to their counterparts at Southcoast Health’s other locations. In negotiating workers’ contracts, the union is also looking to raise salaries for all different levels of positions, from dietary workers to housekeepers to certified nursing assistants.

Jerry Fishbein, area vice president of the organization that put on Monday’s rally, said the starting rate for some roles in Tobey is around $15 an hour.

A press release from the organization states that on June 16, workers sent a letter to the hospital’s administration outlining their wants in their next contract.

“Since that time, management has responded with economic proposals limiting much of the care team to a one percent wage increase,” the release reads.

Tobey Hospital Associate Chief Nursing Officer and Site Administrator Michele Wakeman provided a statement to the Wareham Week Monday evening.

“All 7,500 employees of Southcoast Health – including the outstanding support services and clinical staff at Tobey Hospital – have shown great skill, dedication, and compassion in caring for patients across southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, both during this pandemic and for decades before,” the statement reads. “Southcoast has always worked on every employee’s behalf to offer the best possible compensation, benefits, and resources in an often-volatile market, and we have increased wages for many employees – including those represented by unions – on multiple occasions during the past year. We will continue to negotiate with the 1199SEIU in good faith for a new collective bargaining agreement.”

“Right now, recruitment, retention, and economic challenges are realities facing many health systems, and Southcoast, as a not-for-profit, is no exception. We are responding with campaigns to attract available talent, launching support programs for current employees, and pursuing any and all efforts to secure additional funding to maintain exceptional care from people who care.”

The salary increases that have been proposed don’t cut it, pharmacy technician Jessica Medeiros said.

“One percent is not going to pay my rent,” the worker said on her lunch break as she stopped by the rally. “We just want to bargain across the board for everyone.”

Medeiros was clear: the wages paid to some staffers, like the housekeepers who scrub the emergency rooms, are “pitiful,” she said.

Johnson said in addition to paying higher wages to current staff, offering more competitive salaries would help bring on more employees, lessening the burden on short-staffed units.

“We have been working short,” Johnson said.

Fishbein stood next to Johnson, holding a protest sign.

“After two years of horror … they thought there’d be more recognition,” he said.

Earlier in the day, some of the rally members walked down Main Street to the office of State Rep. Susan Williams Gifford, which was empty on Monday. They left a protest sign, inscribed with a note from one protester, on the outside of her door.

“We have lost many workers due to the wages,” the curvy blue handwriting on the sign reads, between printed exclamations of “RESPECT US!” and “PROTECT US!!” and “PAY US!!!”