September 23, 2022

Champaign-Urbana Public Health employees forming union with AFSCME

Nearly 100 employees of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD) are coming together to form their union, CUPHD United, with the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31.

The announcement came Sept. 23 in a public letter signed by members of the workers’ organizing committee. In the letter, members say they’re fighting for fair pay, transparency, and equal opportunities.

“Every day we work hard to provide quality services to our community. We take pride in our work, yet our experience and dedication have not been reflected in our treatment on the job or in our wages,” the employees wrote. “By forming a union we will ensure the respect, dignity, fair treatment, and compensation that all employees deserve. We will be able to advocate for ourselves and our co-workers, and in doing so we will improve the quality of our services.”

The letter can be read in its entirety here.

CUPHD employees say they’re proud of the work they do to help their community.

“I genuinely enjoy working with my clients and strive to build authentic relationships with each of them,” says Darya Shahgheibi, HIV case manager/counselor. “Helping my clients access the tools they need to live healthy and well is meaningful and rewarding. If I didn’t love my job, I wouldn’t be doing this–organizing our union will help me not only like the work I do with clients, but feel safe from the favoritism, unfair policies, and discrimination that plague my working environment.”

CUPHD employees include public health nurses and nurse practitioners, dental hygienists and assistants, nutritionists, health educators, environmental health specialists, peer counselors, case managers, intake specialists, administrative assistants, accountants and others.

During the pandemic, employees say, they worked many hours per week of unpaid overtime. “During COVID, my coworkers were told to fill out timesheets indicating they worked only 8 hours a day and no more than 40 hours a week, even if they worked much more,” Harm Reduction Specialist Aaron Umbarger said. “Our comp time policies are supposed to give us all time off for extra hours worked, but inconsistent rules across departments and the pressures of a huge workload often made it impossible for my coworkers to use the comp time they were due.”

Remote work has now been offered to CUPHD employees as an option to “regain work-life balance” after the pandemic, however employees report that remote policies are inconsistently applied.

Equity in the workplace is another important issue.

“CUPHD management was so enthusiastic about developing the Equity Council to help bring more diverse leadership here,” says Cyndi Ortiz-Taylor, Great Start home visitor. “I find it amazing that they talk so much about diversity, and yet they hire all white leadership. We fight for equality for our clients, but we can’t have it in the workplace.” 

CUPHD’s 2021 Resolution to Declare Racism as a Public Health Crisis left many workers feeling hopeful for change and eager to join the agency’s Equity Council, but that hope has faded.

“Over the past few years, I have witnessed anti-Black racism and ageism from supervisors. When I tried to address it with them, it was made clear my input was unwelcome,” says nurse practitioner Jennifer Enoch. “I should have spoken out more, but when I spoke up alone, I was afraid of retaliation. I participate in the agency’s Equity Council to try to make change, but it’s not working. Our union will ensure that workers’ rights are taken seriously.” 

Romeo Anoba is a maintenance technician at CUPHD. “I choose to be a CUPHD United member to enjoy full protection,” he says. “Creating a union is not a privilege–it’s our RIGHT under the law. I’m grateful AFSCME is helping us with our union. May all workers prosper!” 

The organizing committee is now collecting union cards signed by their co-workers.

“We’re gratified to help CUPHD employees form their union with AFSCME,” Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch said. “They’ve been on the front lines helping their communities throughout the COVID pandemic. By coming together now, they can advocate for fair treatment and safer working conditions to make CUPHD better for all.”

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