‘Advocating for healthcare workers is advocating for patients’: University of Utah Health workers unionize to address burnout, pay


Maddie McCarthy


Healthcare workers at University of Utah Health (U of U Health) have unionized in an effort to prevent burnout and protect those working in the system. 

The union, called Utah Healthcare Workers United, announced its formation in November.

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Caleb Wilcox, a nurse in U of U Health’s burn trauma ICU and a member of the central committee of organizers in the union, spoke with State of Reform about the union’s mission: “It seems like a necessary step to continue taking care of our communities.”

Their demands include better pay and benefits, as well as addressing workplace violence. The union wants to “make healthcare a viable career option for people,” Wilcox said.

“We really worry where we’re going to be in five to ten years if we continue to disincentivize [working in healthcare].”

— Wilcox

The US is facing a healthcare workforce shortage. In Utah, all 29 counties have healthcare professional shortage areas (HPSAs). 

There are 69 primary care HPSAs in Utah, according to Kaiser Family Foundation. Over 1.1 million people live in primary care HPSAs and 61.7 percent of the need of healthcare professionals is met. The US average is 47.59 percent.

Comparatively, there are 55 mental healthcare HPSAs in Utah, and over 2.9 million people live in those areas. Utah has the fourth highest percentage of need met at 54.3 percent. The US average is 27.2 percent.

Even though Utah has a higher percentage of need met in both primary and mental healthcare compared to many other parts of the US, Wilcox expressed concern about the lower wages healthcare professionals make in Utah, which causes them to move to other areas. 

“According to nurse.org, Utah ranks 37th for pay,” Wilcox said. “We are paid 30 percent below the national average when we factor in cost of living.”

He continued to explain that in nearby areas such as California, Las Vegas, and Portland, new nurses are paid around $20 more an hour than new nursing graduates in Utah.

“We’ve seen a lot of people leaving or moving somewhere else where they can provide better for their families,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox also said more than half of the nurses at his hospital have less than three years of experience. “That’s a public safety issue that I think a lot of people are unaware of,” he said.

When experienced staff leave, they take institutional knowledge and the safety of their experience with them, he explained.

U of U Health sent a statement to State of Reform in which they said they have not received an official notification of union formation.

“U of U Health is prohibited from recognizing organizations for purposes of collective bargaining,” U of U Health said in its statement. “That said, we are committed to transparency, to listening, and to collaboration.”

Regarding pay, U of U Health said every employee received a pay increase this year, and that it regularly checks data to make sure its wages are competitive.

“We focus on the retention of our talented care teams and routinely meet with them to better understand their needs,” U of U Health said.

Wilcox emphasized workplace violence as a critical issue for the health system’s employees.

“The University of Utah is perhaps above average in taking care of its workers,” he said. “For example, we have a behavioral emergency response team that is fantastic with helping support us.”

Regardless, Wilcox argues that there are still issues U of U Health workers face in their everyday jobs that are exacerbated by a lack of staff.

“There is still a lot that we’re expected to endure, with racism, sexism, violence, and just having to take those comments from people. Sometimes it’s because [patients] feel like they’re not getting the attention they need in this vulnerable state, and some of that is because we’re short staffed because on some of our units, our nurses have seven patients that they’re running between trying to take care of.”

— Wilcox

Benefits are another focus of the union. A few months ago, Wilcox said his hospital almost failed to reach an agreement with their health insurance provider. 

“We almost lost the ability to use our health insurance at the hospital we work at, and so it just really isn’t confidence-inspiring,” he said.

Wilcox said graduate students used to get a 50 percent tuition discount if they worked at the hospital, but that benefit is going away next year. Another local hospital upped their health insurance cost so workers now have to pay an extra $50 per pay period to get the benefit, he said. 

Wilcox also mentioned parking as a concern. The current flat rate is the same for all workers, but the union wants a sliding scale so workers with a lower wage are not paying a disproportionate amount to park at their place of work. 

Overall, the union wants to be able to serve its communities as best as they can. “Our tagline is, ‘advocating for healthcare workers is advocating for patients,’” Wilcox said.

“Your healing conditions are our working conditions. When we are short-staffed, or we don’t have the supplies that we need, or we’re stressed out about making ends meet, that affects the care that we can provide. A lot of us are in this field because we really do care and want to take the best care of others that we can. We’re just at a point where that’s becoming a real challenge.”

— Wilcox