Gundersen’s Essential Workers Demand a Living Wage

Workers at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse who feed patients, assist nursing staff, wash laundry and perform other essential work, are calling on management to pay them a living wage so they can afford basic necessities, including their own health care.

“Hospital workers like us have risked our lives during this pandemic to keep our hospitals clean and able to deliver quality care to our community,” said Lance Helgeson, dietary aide at Gundersen. “Still, too many of us live paycheck to paycheck, struggling to afford a safe place to live or afford medical care. And the low pay has driven away many talented and caring staff to jobs where they can survive.”

Some Gundersen positions start on as little as $10.77 an hour and employees who spoke at an event in La Crosse Monday said they have worked through the pandemic with no hazard pay. The workers are calling on management to raise the minimum wage for Gundersen employees closer to $15 an hour. Low wages make it difficult to retain staff at Gundersen in many key positions, they said.

“The short staffing and high turnover get in the way of us providing the best possible care to our patients,” Helgeson said. “It’s past time for Gundersen to raise wages to a decent living wage so that hospital workers can live with dignity while we care for patients.”

SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, the union that represents the workers and that organized Monday’s event, is calling on the wider La Crosse community to pressure Gundersen CEO Dr. Scott Rathgaber into raising wages for the hospital’s lowest paid employees (Text “SCOTT” to 52886 if you want to tell Dr. Rathgaber that essential workers deserve a living wage). Dr. Rathgaber was paid $1.064 million by Gundersen in 2018, the most recent year for which his compensation is publicly available.

Several of the workers who spoke at Monday’s event said they had struggled to pay their own health care bills and to afford basic necessities like rent or car repairs. One worker also noted that pay for a position that starts at a little over $10 an hour at Gundersen starts at over $14 an hour at the Mayo Clinic hospital in La Crosse.

John Havlicek, president of the La Crosse Education Association, the union that represents La Crosse teachers, spoke at Monday’s event in support of the calls from the Gundersen workers for higher pay. Havlicek noted that many jobs that paid “solid middle income wages” at places like the now shuttered La Crosse Rubber Mills had been lost locally, with negative consequences for the entire community.

 “They were good family-sustaining jobs,” he said. “When workers can’t find family-sustaining jobs and family-sustaining wages, the community dies…The entire community feels the effect.”

Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center had revenue of over $1.1 billion in 2018, the most recent year for which records are available. That number was $117 million higher than the nonprofit hospital’s expenses.

COVID-19 likely put pressure on Gundersen’s bottom line in 2020 due to elective and other non-emergency procedures being postponed to deal with the pandemic. However, Gundersen also received tens of millions of dollars in covid relief funding from the federal government (view federal grants and loans Gundersen received in 2020 at this link).

Veronica Craig, another Gundersen employee who spoke Monday, said too many of her colleagues are living paycheck to paycheck and fear losing everything when confronted by an unexpected expense. She delayed seeking medical care herself recently due to concern about whether she could afford treatment. 

“By joining together in our union we can stand with and for each other, no matter our race or background to ensure that we all can have what we need to live a life of dignity and care for our families,” she said.

Gundersen officials did not respond to a request for comment on this story but we will publish their response if they do.

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Reporting by Eric Timmons. Email questions to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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