Thursday, December 2, 2021

Sparrow Hospital caregivers to vote on strike authorization

November 16, 2021
<p>Sparrow nurses along with supporters of them picket along Michigan Avenue in Lansing on Nov. 3, 2021. </p>

Sparrow nurses along with supporters of them picket along Michigan Avenue in Lansing on Nov. 3, 2021.

Photo by Jillian Felton | The State News

The union for Sparrow Hospital caregivers has scheduled a strike authorization vote between Nov. 16 and Nov. 21. The vote comes after bargaining between the 2,200 member union, Professional Employees Council of Sparrow Hospital, and hospital administration failed to progress to an agreement at a Nov. 9 meeting. 

The strike authorization vote comes as the hospital reported to have at least 82 COVID-19 patients, with 11 of those in the intensive care units, and nears 100% capacity, according to the coronavirus bed tracker

A link went out to members of the union Monday morning, and even if members vote to authorize a strike, the situation could still be avoided should the sides come to an agreement. The soonest the strike would happen would be Dec. 1, which is 10 days after voting ends. 

Union President Katie Pontifex, who is also a nurse at the hospital, said that Sparrow’s administration is preparing for a strike. A recruiting agency has been emailing licensed caregivers throughout the country with offers to strikebreak. 

The emails have even gone to union members. Union Vice President Kevin Glaza was offered to work for $200 per hour during a “potential strike in Michigan” from one of these emails.

Pontifex said she was tipped off by an out-of-state nurse who told her that they were offered $135 per hour to strikebreak, which is more than double what most nurses make.

Currently, all of the unionized caregiving staff has been working without a contract since Oct. 29, when the previous contract expired. Negotiations over a new one have been going on for more than three months now.

Pontifex said the union has multiple issues with the proposed contract, including a rise in healthcare costs, the annual salary increase, reduction of call-ins, mandatory overtime and lack of clarity in the contract for caregivers in non-nursing roles. 

Sparrow spokesperson John Foren said in a statement that the hospital does not want a strike and believes nothing that was proposed warrants a strike.

Caregivers at Sparrow have criticized the hospital for its understaffed work environment. Destinee Griffin, a part-time labor and delivery nurse, said the understaffing is not just among nurses or the professional caregiving staff, but with cooks in the cafeteria and janitorial staff to clean the patients’ rooms. 

Griffin said that her labor and delivery unit has not been fully staffed and often runs two-to-three nurses short each shift.

“We are running as slim as we possibly can and we have been for a long time,” Griffin said. “Those staff that work in the COVID units — it’s been a long 20-21 months for them. They have seen more deaths in the last 20-21 months than they probably have in their entire careers.”

Because Sparrow is usually short-staffed, caregivers are being required to work extended shifts, which both Pontifex and Griffin said puts the caregiver at risk for falling asleep when driving home from their shifts. 

“I live 10 minutes away from the hospital, and I'm concerned about driving home some days,” Pontifex said.

Griffin said she knows caregivers who left because, in March 2021, the hospital tore down its on-site daycare center to build a new outpatient surgery center.

Griffin said she will vote in support of the strike and that most of the other union members she has talked to have stated that they will reluctantly vote yes, too.

“I have not had a single person tell me that they will vote no,” Griffin said. “Nobody wants to do it. It’s not good for us, it’s not good for the community, it’s not good for the hospital. I do want what’s best for Sparrow Hospital, and that’s part of the reason why I’m so passionate about this.”

Pontifex said that the hospital negotiation team does not consistently include the non-nurse caregivers in their contract language. This makes it hard to apply parts of the contract to the other classifications of workers in the union.

“We have to remind them several times a meeting: We are more than nurses," Pontifex said. "This contract applies to everyone or asking how, with this language, would you apply that to a social worker? They can't answer that question because they didn't write that language for a social worker, but it has to be able to be applied to a social worker or a pharmacist or a therapist.”

Should a strike take place, the hospital could find itself reliant on many of its travel caregivers, all of whom make more than the Sparrow caregivers, because they are temporarily hired. 

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But, Pontifex said that many of the travel nurses she has talked to have said that they either would not cross the picket line or have contractual obligations to not cross picket lines, which could be a problem for Sparrow.

In addition to the strike vote, this week also marks the start of a federal mediator coming to the negotiation table. The mediator will try to bridge the gap between the union and hospital administration, but ultimately the agreement must be made between the two parties. 

“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 in the statement.

Pontifex said that the union asked for additional negotiating days in November, but was denied.

“We are committed,” Pontifex said. “We do not want to walk. We asked for additional dates, and they told us no. That tells me they’re not committed to this. They say they are, but all of their actions say otherwise.”

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