DECATUR – The prognosis for a group of unionized prison nursing jobs across Central Illinois hangs in the balance as last-ditch efforts are made to save them.
The correctional facility nurses – seven in Decatur, 12 in Vandalia and four in Lincoln – are among 124 nurses statewide who have been told by Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration their state jobs will end in June 15.
All these nursing jobs are being privatized and will be filled by a medical care vendor called Wexford Health Sources Inc., which already provides the rest of the state prison network's nurses.
Among those supporting the effort to save the jobs is state Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, who is among the sponsors of new legislation that would prevent the nurses from being laid off and their work from being outsourced.
All that is needed is for Rauner to sign the bill, a hope that appears to be on life support given the governor's oft-stated anti-union stance. Nicole Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, has previously said that privatizing the nursing jobs would save taxpayers $8 million a year.
Scherer, however, says there is still time for the governor to see sense: “Well, my hope is that maybe he didn't see all the negative repercussions that were going to happen and maybe he will sign the law,” she told the Herald & Review Monday. “I just can't imagine him vetoing it.”
Scherer lists those negative repercussions as the risk of substandard care for inmates and the chance that no money will be saved anyway. She says the state will be at financial risk from inmate lawsuits and huge overtime bills as she claims Wexford has a reputation for staffing shortages and substandard care.
A spokesperson for Pittsburgh-based Wexford did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Scherer says she also feels for the union nurses, all members of the Illinois Nurses Association, who are having their lives disrupted in what she sees as a pointless exercise with no good outcome.
“This is just all around not a good deal for the state of Illinois: it's not good for our workers, it's not good for our unions and it's not good for fiscal soundness,” she added. “And Wexford is not a good company to work with.”
The Department of Corrections did not return a call in time for its comments to be included in this article, but has previously stated that most of the laid off nurses would likely be hired back by Wexford. And the department has said it will work with nurses who wish to remain employed by the state by trying to find them jobs in other state agencies.
The Illinois Nurses Association says the state's response is not good enough. It says Wexford will offer the nurses their old jobs back for less pay and more seasoned nurses, who had planned retirement, will not see the full state pension benefits they had been counting on after years of service in difficult conditions.
The INA has filed claims of unfair labor practices against the state and accused Rauner of planning the layoff in retaliation after INA's membership overwhelmingly rejected a previous tentative labor agreement reached last spring.
INA executive director, Alice Johnson, says the state is handing out shabby treatment to dedicated workers, sometimes called to work for 24 hours at a stretch, who endured a tough job for the promise of a comfortable retirement.
“Nursing is a very physical job and I think a lot of nurses look at the (state) pension and that retirement security as something that makes the job attractive,” she added.
Wexford now provides health care services to some 97,000 inmates in 120 institutions scattered across the country. It offers medical, behavioral health, dental, vision and pharmaceutical care, according to its web site, as well as health-related products and services including chemical dependency treatment.