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Health

Strike vote authorized for union workers at Lansing's Sparrow Hospital

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Lester Graham
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Workers in the Professional Employee Council of Sparrow Hospital, a local of the Michigan Nurses Association, have been without a contract since Oct. 31, and say critically low staffing threatens patient care at the Lansing-based health system, which operates seven mid-Michigan hospitals.

A strike authorization vote has been scheduled for November 16-21 for 2,200 members of Sparrow Health System's largest bargaining unit after months of negotiations began to unravel this week.

Workers in the Professional Employee Council of Sparrow Hospital, a local of the Michigan Nurses Association, have been without a contract since October 31, and say critically low staffing threatens patient care at the Lansing-based health system, which operates seven mid-Michigan hospitals.

An "informational picket" took place outside the hospital November 3, and included about 1,000 workers who say they want a contract with higher wages, better health insurance rates, better staffing and a contractual guarantee of personal protective equipment, such as N95 respirators, to care for patients with COVID-19.

the exterior of Lansing's Sparrow Hospital
Lester Graham

The union, which represents 53 worker classifications, including nurses, pharmacists, social workers and therapists at Sparrow, would provide a 10-day notice before setting a strike date. That means the soonest possible strike date is Dec. 1 — though leaders say a strike could be avoided if a contract deal is reached.

“All we are asking for is a fair contract that will allow us to recruit and retain caregivers,” said Katie Pontifex, a nurse at Sparrow Hospital who is president of PECSH-MNA. “While a strike is always a last resort, we are willing to do what it takes to make sure that we will always be able to provide the highest quality of care. We are advocating for our patients and our community.”

John Foren, a spokesperson for Sparrow, said it is "disappointing that (the union) would threaten a strike, especially during a pandemic, particularly given Sparrow’s commitment to finding collaborative ways to address staffing level challenges while providing caregivers with competitive pay and benefits.

"Sparrow Hospital does not want a strike and we believe nothing we have proposed warrants a strike."

The hospital system has engaged in more than 20 bargaining sessions with PECSH-MNA since July, Foren said.

"We have come to each session prepared and focused on reaching a contract that’s good for caregivers, patients, the community, and Sparrow," Foren said. "Sparrow has made several proposals designed to make significant progress towards reaching an agreement, including a 12% wage increase over the proposed life of the contract, which is three years."

Additionally, management has proposed:

  • Increasing weekend differential pay by more than 200%.
  • Increasing the pool of supplemental float nurses.
  • Paying bonuses for exemplary attendance.
  • Maintaining all benefits, paid time off, holidays, and longevity during the term of the agreement.
  • Not increasing health care insurance premiums for 2022.

"We believe contract issues are best settled at the bargaining table and we remain committed to transparent and collaborative negotiations to reach a fair agreement," Foren said.
Upcoming bargaining sessions are planned for Nov. 11, 16 17, 29, 30 and Dec. 1 and Dec. 10. A federal mediator will join negotiations starting Nov. 16, Foren said.

Kevin Glaza, a pharmacist at Sparrow Hospital and vice president of PECSH-MNA, said union workers only want a fair contract.

“We need fair wages. We need affordable healthcare. We need a commitment to PPE," Glaza said.

Contact Kristen Shamus: kshamus@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus. 

The Detroit Free Press, Bridge Michigan and Michigan Radio have teamed up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact Kristen Jordan Shamus at kshamus@freepress.com, Robin Erb at rerb@bridgemi.com or Kate Wells at katwells@umich.edu.

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