Union protests shutdown at VA Medical Center


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Since the government shutdown began on Oct. 1, there has been a snowball effect on American incomes nationwide. In Iowa City, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center is now feeling the strain from the second week of a lapsed government. Members of the American Federation of Government Employees protested at the VA hospital Wednesday afternoon to raise awareness about people working without pay and workers on furlough.

This week marked the onset of unpaid work for one department in the hospital that has an important role in the hospital’s operations, Union President Pat Kearns said. “Right now, the Information Technology section of our hospital that does all of our computer systems doesn’t have a budget, and those employees are currently working without pay,” Kearns said.

Kearns said there are no paper records in the VA hospital, and because the hospital is entirely reliant on computer systems, the absence of pay for the IT department is a negative consequence among many around the nation from Washington’s dispute. “[Hospital employees] pretty much are at a loss for everything — charting, documentation, everything is at a loss,” said Renee Hauser, union vice president. “I just want everyone to understand that this is going to affect everyone. These aren’t just top union and government officials. These are people like you and me.”

But the government shutdown has not hindered the VA hospital from serving their patients. “We always give good care no matter what,” Hauser said. “We have pride in giving good care. The veterans are always going to be taken care of. As RNs,  that’s our job — they’re always going to be in good care.”

Public-affairs officer of the VA hospital Valerie Buckingham said because the health-care side of the hospital is funded by a two-year budget, that pay is not going to be cut. The second year of the federal fiscal year started last week, she noted. For two state legislators, discussions are heated, featuring different opinions, but both sides agree they want an open government — and they want it soon.

“The U.S. Senate hasn’t passed a budget in five years,” Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, said. “First of all, lock a group of senators in a room and make them pass a budget, and then throw that to the House and make them pass a budget.” Baltimore said passing continuing resolutions rather than a long-term sustainable budget is not the way to run a government.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, took a firm stance on the issue.  “It’s time for these extremists in the tea party that are in Congress to stand down and let the adults come together and make progress,” he said. “Some of the people who work for the federal government are union members, and they have every right to stand outside and share their concerns in a public way”

An electrician at the VA hospital, Ray Spaniol, is working with pay but protested in support of those who are working without it. He said the VA hospital is a particularly important hospital for the veterans it serves, and the government needs to come together for the sake of the nation. “I’m personally out here to support fellow veterans,” Spaniol said. “There are men and women of this nation who have sacrificed so much. They’ve given their hearts, souls, minds, body parts, and lives defending the people of this country and our land and we have politicians in Washington that are working and making a lot of money.”

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