Rutgers prioritizes union-busting and gaslighting public health care workers - Health Professionals & Allied Employees

Rutgers prioritizes union-busting and gaslighting public health care workers

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By Justin O’Hea, Star- Ledger Guest Columnist, HPAE local 5094 co-president

January 19, 2023

Upon arrival as Rutgers President in late 2019, Jonathan Holloway called (via video) Rutgers workers his “beloved community.”

Then, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Rutgers activated a “fiscal emergency” in 2020 because of a projected $134 million deficit. While refusing to bargain with Rutgers unions for close to a year, Rutgers carried out layoffs of more than a thousand employees, stripping public employees that were already making sacrifices for the university of their jobs and health insurance during an ongoing public health emergency and job market crisis.

Most Americans understand the sacrifices that our healthcare workers have been making over the past several years as they battle the largest public health crisis that the world has ever seen. Amidst the horror of never-ending patient deaths, healthcare workers are also facing short staffing, inadequate resources and funding, chronic turnovers, illnesses, personal and collective loss, trauma, overwork, and exhaustion on a daily basis.

HPAE Local 5094 represents approximately 2,709 health care professionals, 2,060 of whom work for Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in mental health, healthcare, corrections, child protection and permanency, biomedical research, information technology, and education, among other professional titles. HPAE Local 5089 represents an additional 1,569 healthcare workers, mostly nurses, 632 of whom also work for Rutgers.

I am a mental health clinician at Rutgers, counseling adults 18 and older with significant mental health and/or substance use problems. Our program offers group therapy, individual therapy, case management, medication management, benefits assistance, and some legal advocacy to a broad spectrum of the Middlesex County population.

We serve everyone, from students in emotional distress, and successful adults, to people discharged from state hospitals, unhoused individuals, to individuals that have been incarcerated. We provide the highest and most comprehensive level of in-community care.

I consider this my life’s work, as I have worked in non-profit mental health and addiction treatment for 21 years. But what I am observing in the conduct of Rutgers toward its public workers is beyond disappointing.

For instance, we pleaded for President Holloway to intervene and stop the draconian job cuts, but he did not.

Eventually, when Rutgers came to the table to negotiate a deal, thousands of health care professionals deferred a year’s raise that was contractually agreed upon, among other concessions, in an attempt to shield the university from further loss.

Yet, in Rutgers’ 2021-22 budget, it came out that the university collected nearly $365 million in federal and state support through the CARES Act and the American Recovery Act, and somehow ‘magically’ turned the unprecedented financial loss into a windfall. Rutgers’ profit margin for FY2021 was 11.32 percent, more than triple the negative 5.1 percent in FY2020.

In 2021, Rutgers’ rainy-day fund grew by 62%, from $505.7 million in 2020 to 818.6 million, a $313 million increase. Although Rutgers projected an operating deficit of $134 million for the fiscal year 2021, the university actually had an operating surplus of $156 million for the year.

Additionally, Rutgers’ endowment had a banner year in 2020–21, with the net value of university investments climbing by $443.0 million.

And this happened during a period when Rutgers downsized by laying off more than a thousand union members and forced our healthcare workforce to work with inadequate resources, under unacceptable and dangerous circumstances.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought life as we knew it nearly to a standstill, upended our financial system and wrought other tragedies in its wake. Thousands died in New Jersey and thousands more were infected, some with debilitating, long-lasting effects.

For Rutgers, the pandemic was very good indeed to its bottom line and the university is using the pandemic to rid itself of what it sees as meddlesome public sector union workers. Halfway through FY2022 Rutgers had almost two billion dollars in endowment money, yet the university consistently cries about scarcity.

Our contract expired on June 30, 2022, and rather than bargain in good faith, Rutgers has been:

  • union busting by subcontracting bargaining unit work at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey to a private corporation;
  • gaslighting our local leadership about subcontracting, and ultimately admitting to it after months of bargaining;
  • giving us the runaround at the bargaining table, continually stalling progress at the negotiations table;
  • preventing transparency of the negotiations process to our membership;
  • and offering its “healthcare heroes” a 2% wage increase as we confront almost 9% inflation.

This is not how you treat a “beloved community”; for this community to feel beloved, Rutgers needs to end its anti-union assault on its already pandemic-beleaguered workforce. We have suffered enough.

Read more here.