HCMC respiratory therapist Robert Grabko has 40 years of experience testing lung function, helping doctors diagnose and treat diseases including asthma and COPD, and educating patients. He’s so skilled; he’s one of a handful of people in Minnesota nationally registered both as a pulmonary function technologist and an asthma educator. HCMC recently announced the layoffs of 200 workers, and Local 2474 member Grabko was among them.
“I like to investigate. That’s what you do in pulmonary diagnosis: I’m in investigative medicine. You have somebody come in, they don’t know what’s wrong with them. You do testing, find out what’s wrong, what can we do to fix it? You do the education and the care plan with the physician.
"I enjoy working with patients one on one, seeing each patient get better. It affects people’s lives. You’re talking quality of life.
"In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, respiratory therapy was a new kind of field. I liked the idea it was a ground-floor, new, startup profession. It’s in my blood to go into medicine. My grandfather worked at the Mayo Clinic. He was an interpreter from 1920 to 1970. He was the lead interpreter. He would have people come from Eastern Europe to the Mayo Clinic, they couldn’t speak English. There’s a mural with my grandpa standing in the doctor’s lounge.
"At HCMC, we have a busy lab, a highly specialized lab. There were three people in my lab doing breathing testing, pulmonary stress testing, working in the ICU, doing tracheotomies. A lot of that’s unscheduled. A doctor will say I need someone up at 1:00. Now they’ll have to say, oh, we don’t have anybody.
"I thought they’d be crazy to lay off anybody there. Lo and behold, I got a call: Can you come down to the office? March 17 was my last day.
"What happens to the people who are left? It’s double the workload. It’s already busy. What if one of them calls in sick or goes on vacation? You’ve got one person to do the work of three. They’re going to do more with less. You’re going from a position where you’ve got really good, high-quality patient care to in some cases no care or poor quality of care because you don’t have the time to get it done.
"My coworkers, they’re upset. They keep texting me, ‘Are they going to bring you back? Are they going to bring you back?’
"A lot of the ideas I had for asthma and COPD programs at the new building got thrown right out. We have the opportunity to have a respiratory therapist in clinic with the doctors, to do education and follow-up and keep patients out of the hospital. I had the idea of bringing athletes with asthma to come see our lung doctors. One of the doctors at HCMC was a marathon runner and was super interested. He was already referring patients to me, one-on-one, on a small scale. It’s a huge opportunity, and they’re throwing it out the window.
"How have the layoffs affected me? Personally. They want to bring me back as a casual person instead. Without the salary that I made, without the benefits I made, retirement through PERA, and vacation time and sick time. It’s been exhausting. I’m 60. I had planned to retire at 66. I’m out about $400,000 over the next six years with salary, PERA, vacation, benefits.
"Do I feel discriminated against? Yes, because I’m older.
"I work part-time at Stillwater hospital, it’s not enough. I’d have to work until I’m 76 maybe. I need to find other work. I’ve been working some shifts at Waconia and Woodwinds hospitals. I’ve had to work night shifts, double shifts, to take what I can get. There are no benefits. I’m just picking up hours to work. I can’t retire on that.
"I think they’re really damaging HCMC as far as the quality of patient care and the morale of employees. They’re chopping out some of the people who would make progressive medicine, innovative medicine happen. That’s what attracts paying patients. I don’t think the right foot knows what the left foot is doing.
"I’m starting to ask this question: Did you have to lay off 200 people to build the new building? Who are you going to put to work in it? What’s the use of a brand-new building if you don’t have anybody to provide quality care?
"I’ve been in the business for 40 years. I started right out of high school. Hennepin County had a really good employee with a lot of specialization and experience and now they don’t. I’m not the only one. There are 200 others.”