Sparrow Hospital caregivers approve strike authorization

Union leaders say fairer wages, better benefits needed amid pandemic

By: - November 22, 2021 1:04 pm

Sparrow Hospital workers call for fairer pay and better benefits at an “informational picket” on Nov. 3, 2021. | Anna Gustafson

Updated Nov. 22, 2021, 5:42 p.m. with information about Sparrow’s proposed contract that was presented to the union on Monday and the union’s response.

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. 3, 2021. | Anna Gustafson

Sparrow did not respond to a question specifically about the MNA’s allegations.

Following the union’s announcement regarding the strike vote Monday morning, the hospital issued a statement late Monday afternoon announcing it had provided PECSH with a “revised pay and benefits proposal that provides best-in-class compensation to our caregivers.” 

The proposed contract was given to the union through a federal mediator who has been working with the hospital and PECSH since last week.

“Sparrow is intent on working out a fair and equitable contract with the union,” the hospital said in a prepared statement. “Working through the mediator, we were able to identify the structure of a deal in which the health system would provide an unprecedented package to our nurses and other health care professionals represented by PECSH.”

The new proposal would “significantly increase compensation” for caregivers with “no changes to the current health care benefit plan designs or caregiver premium co-share.”

Under the proposed contract, a nurse now making $37 an hour would see their base wage increase by $7.04 per hour, a 19% increase, by the end of the three-year contract. A clinical lab scientist currently earning $34.04 per hour would see their base wage increase by $5.33 per hour, a 15.6% increase, by the end of the three-year contract.

The proposal “shows the value we place in our caregivers, who have distinguished themselves nationally with grace and compassion during the worst health crisis of our lifetime,” Sparrow said in its prepared statement.

The hospital said it “does not want a strike, which would be bad for everyone.”

“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,” the Sparrow statement said.

Pontifex, PECSH’s president, criticized the new proposed contract, saying, “Sparrow executives’ proposal ties something as basic as not increasing health care costs in a pandemic to reducing sick days and refusing to guarantee access to [personal protection equipment].”

“This proposal that risks the safety of nurses and healthcare professionals and our patients is simply unacceptable,” Pontifex said. “Nothing in Sparrow executives’ proposal addresses the immediate staffing crisis as caregivers are forced to take care of more patients than is safe. [Union] members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, and we will not back down from fighting for what we need to take care of our patients and our community.”

The proposed contract does not “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,” an MNA statement said. 

Kevin Glaza, a Sparrow pharmacist and vice president of PECSH, said in the Monday morning 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 in a statement issued prior to the news about the contract proposed Monday afternoon.

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.

The next contract negotiating date is scheduled for Nov. 29.


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.