Sparrow Hospital caregivers approve strike authorization ⋆

Members of a union representing thousands of caregivers at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing voted to authorize a strike should union leaders determine it’s necessary during ongoing contract negotiations, the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) said Monday.

Ninety-six percent of the health care professionals in the Professional Employee Council of Sparrow Hospital (PECSH) union — including nurses, pharmacists, social workers, and therapists — who participated in the vote between Tuesday and Sunday approved authorizing a strike. About 88% of the 2,200 PECSH members voted; PESCH is a local subset of the MNA.

The vote does not mean a strike will definitely happen, but it allows union leaders to call for one if contract negotiations break down. The MNA specified that 10 days’ notice would be given before a strike date is set. 

PECSH members have been working without a contract since Oct. 30; union leaders said staff need fairer pay and benefits, as well as safer working conditions, as they attempt to both retain and attract employees while Michigan once again battles the highest COVID-19 case numbers in the country.

“We have been clear from the start about what nurses and healthcare professionals need, but Sparrow executives don’t seem to take us seriously,” Katie Pontifex, a Sparrow Hospital nurse and the president of PECSH, said in a prepared statement.

“After almost two years of pouring our hearts and souls into working during this pandemic, we can’t stand by and watch as the staffing crisis gets worse and compromises care for more patients,” Pontifex continued. “While no one wants a strike, [PECSH] members stand ready to do what it takes. Sparrow executives need to get serious about recruiting and retaining nurses and healthcare professionals so we can provide the best care possible to our patients and community.”

The MNA said in a statement Monday that the strike vote “occurred despite an active campaign by Sparrow administrators to scare union members away from authorizing a strike.”

According to the MNA, hospital executives “repeatedly threatened to cut workers’ benefits — even during a pandemic — during a strike and to replace them with strikebreakers past the end of a strike in what is known as a ‘lock-out.’” 

Sparrow Hospital workers call for fairer pay and better benefits at an “informational picket” on Nov. 4, 2021. | Anna Gustafson

Sparrow did not respond to a question specifically about the MNA’s allegations. John Foren, a Sparrow spokesperson, said in a statement Monday that good progress on the contract is being made after a federal mediator began attending negotiations last week. 

“Sparrow is intent on working out a fair and equitable contract with the union, and we are encouraged by the progress we’ve seen since working with the federal mediator,” Foren said. “The two sides are currently discussing proposals at the bargaining table, and we hope to disclose details later.”

“Sparrow does not want a walkout, which would be bad for everyone,” Foren continued. “As the region’s only community-owned, community-based and community-governed health system, it’s important we maintain our pledge to protect the health of our patients and families as we experience another COVID surge.”

Union representatives, however, said they do not feel overly optimistic, and MNA accused Sparrow executives of crafting a proposed contract that includes “wage increases that do not keep up with the cost of inflation, increased health care costs, and punishment for nurses or health care professionals who have to call in sick.”

The proposal also fails to “provide a guarantee of an N95 mask or better for those working with known or suspected COVID-19 patients and would reduce caregivers’ voice in their workplace,” the MNA statement said.

Kevin Glaza, a Sparrow pharmacist and vice president of PECSH, said in a Monday press release that a strike “is the last thing we want.”

“We cannot allow Sparrow executives to bully us into a contract that won’t improve staffing, won’t keep up with the cost of living, makes it hard for us to afford health care, and punishes us when we are sick,” Glaza said. 

Sparrow has long been short-staffed — the hospital needs at least 90 more nurses to have a full staff, according to union leaders — and the pandemic has further exacerbated that problem, employees said. In addition to the stress of working while short-staffed during the pandemic, health care workers have also increasingly faced aggressive and violent patients.

“Staffing is a huge problem, and it’s a recruitment and retention issue,” Julie Mason, a clinical laboratory scientist in Sparrow Hospital’s microbiology department, said during an “informational picket” outside Sparrow Hospital earlier this month. “We are short-staffed. You see nurses at the end of their shifts parking their cars and just crying. It’s just not OK.

After almost two years of pouring our hearts and souls into working during this pandemic, we can’t stand by and watch as the staffing crisis gets worse and compromises care for more patients.

– Katie Pontifex, a Sparrow Hospital nurse and the president of PECSH

“The short-staffing hasn’t been a new problem, and it’s been exacerbated during COVID,” Mason continued. “Nurses are having to do more with less. Instead of taking care of their two or three patients, now it’s four, five, six, seven, eight, nine patients. It’s ridiculous. They can’t keep doing that.”

After the informational picket, which drew about 1,000 caregivers and community members, Sparrow Hospital noted it faced a $31 million operating loss in 2020 and expects an operating loss in 2021, too. In a prepared statement issued earlier this month, the hospital said it has worked to attract more employees.

“We also recruit and retain caregivers by participating in dozens of career fairs each year, recruit at schools around the state, offer referral, sign on and retention bonuses and reward caregivers who commit to additional shifts with cash bonuses up to $10,000, among many other initiatives,” the Sparrow statement read.

Sparrow workers, however, said those efforts have failed.

LJ Knight, a Sparrow nurse, said in a previous interview that experienced emergency room nurses are leaving because of staffing shortages. And Pontifex said the hospital is “hemorrhaging staff in all of our areas.”

The Sparrow union’s strike vote comes as workers across the country are calling for better working conditions, including Kellogg workers in Battle Creek and McDonald’s staff in Detroit.



authored by Anna Gustafson
First published at

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