20 years union for Wexford employees
This July employees of Wexford Health Sources Inc. at Illinois correctional facilities celebrated a two-year contract agreement and their 20-year union anniversary. They inked the deal on Tuesday, September 10.
Members of AFSCME corrections locals across the state, more than 1,000 nurses, LPNs, CNAs, nurse practitioners, medical assistants, dental assistants, psychiatrists and mental health professionals working in adult correctional facilities are employed by Wexford, a private medical contractor.
Wexford is a difficult employer to bargain with, said members of the bargaining committee.
“I was shocked to realize I work for a company that knows so little about their people,” said Ashtyn Rennels, a dental hygienist at Danville Correctional Center and a member of AFSCME Local 2052. She’s worked for Wexford for five years. This is the first time she’s served on the bargaining committee.
“The union does a lot for us,” she said. “The [rights and benefits] we have are mainly because the union has done it, not Wexford.”
The committee was able to negotiate a guaranteed minimum wage increase of 2.5% a year for the remaining two years of the contract and upgrade many classifications to be competitive with market rates for those fields. Recruitment is difficult for the company, especially in more densely populated areas like Chicago.
“We ensured equity adjustments in this contract for the first time in years,” said AFSCME Council 31 Staff Representative Joe Pluger who led negotiations along with Staff Representative Ty Petersen. “These increases are long overdue and should help to alleviate short staffing in certain areas.”
Two decades of work
Bringing wages up in the private company is something AFSCME started 20 years ago. The first contract with private health care contractors in corrections was signed in 1999 and in 2004 several contracts were combined into one large state contract with Wexford.
“When we all came together, we were all brought up to the highest pay scale. That move made us even more powerful,” said Kathy Kissiar, a Local 494 member and staff assistant at Pontiac Correctional Center with 30 years of experience working in the state prison system.
Kissiar has been on the negotiating team for every contract since she became a union member 20 years ago. She said it’s been an ongoing challenge to get fair wages and benefits from private contractors.
“We have fought so hard for a living wage that’s comparable to what employees of the Department of Corrections make,” she said. “But we still have a long way to go to have parity with the state.”
She said Wexford tries to compare their workers to those doing similar jobs in the private sector.
“But we’re in a prison setting. You never know what the day is going to bring you,” she said. “It’s really tough sitting across the table from a company that has no clue what we do.”
AFSCME members at Wexford have never given up fighting for what they deserve. Over the years they’ve won wage increases, a grievance process, and paid time off that’s comparable to state employees.
Making a difference on the job
Both Rennels and Kissiar are proud of the work they do every day.
“I love my job,” said Rennels. “I have a list of 150 guys that are waiting on me right now for teeth cleanings, exams and x-rays. A lot of guys have never even been to a dentist so it can be super rewarding.”
“I’m passionate about the job I do,” said Kissiar, “and I am committed to the role I play as union steward, [executive] board member and on the third-level grievance committee.”
She said the bargaining committee was a steadfast team comprised of both new and veteran employees. Along with Kissiar and Rennels, the bargaining team included members of every Wexford local: Sarah Speece, Tisha Brashear-Finney, Julie Klein, Megan Jording, Trent Lapp, Kathy Kissiar, Todd Nelson, Christine Alexander, Kaley Johnson, Tasha Woods, Niki Bonnell, Mary Rogers, Amy Jones, Jacob Weatherford, Talitha Brooks, Andrea Russell, Ashtyn Rennels, Kirsten Lolling, Bettie Jones, Susette Doyle, Susan Robinson, Marci Smith, Kim Stephens, Randy Emerson, Shaliza Odom and Kristen Minor.
“We have more work to do,” Kissiar said. “Our wheels are turning all the time about adjustments we need to make next time around. We’re all about what’s right and fair and what’s best for our members.”