Facing ‘staffing crisis,’ Michigan Medicine nurses call for change

By: - June 20, 2022 4:39 pm

At a University of Michigan Board of Regents meeting on June 16, 2022, Michigan Medicine nurses said they face a “staffing crisis.” | Photo courtesy of the Michigan Nurses Association

After two years of working in a pandemic that has left health care workers across the state and country burnt out and leaving the profession, thousands of unionized Michigan Medicine nurses are calling on their employer, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, to address what they called a “staffing crisis” and provide fairer wages as they negotiate a new contract.

The current contract for about 6,200 registered nurses represented by the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council (UMPNC), a subset of the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA), is set to expire on June 30.

“Michigan Medicine is not bringing serious proposals to the table to deal with the staffing crisis that is hurting patients,” Renee Curtis, a registered nurse and the president of the UMPNC, said in an MNA press release. “In fact, they want to make it easier to force nurses to work overtime, and they won’t even talk about safe RN-to-patient workload ratios to ensure every patient can get quality care. We are losing too many nurses because of Michigan Medicine’s model of running the system through unsafe staffing, excessive overtime and shortchanging patient care.”

Adam Paulsen, a pediatric intensive care unit nurse at Michigan Medicine, said “we lose one to two nurses a week.”

“Two years ago, the management team called us heroes and offered us praise at every turn,” Paulsen said at a University of Michigan Board of Regents meeting last Thursday, June 16. “Now they offer us contracts that cut our protections.”

Nurses and Michigan Medicine administration have been regularly meeting about the contract since March. Employees said administrators have yet to come close to meeting their demands, which the MNA said includes: “an end to understaffing through safe and contractually enforceable nurse-to-patient workload ratios, fair compensation that recruits and retains nurses and outpaces inflation and an end to unsafe mandatory overtime.”

Michigan Medicine said in a statement provided to the Advance that it aims to reach an agreement before the contract expires. 

“Our nurses are exemplary and a valued part of our healthcare team, and we empathize with the strain this puts on individual nurses, as well as our patients and entire community,” Michigan Medicine wrote. “Our desire is to develop solutions that work for all nurses and provide competitive salary, benefits, professional development, and support for wellness and well-being.

“We are hopeful that an agreement can be reached before the contract expires,” the Michigan Medicine statement continued. “As always, our focus will be on providing the highest quality patient care and continuity of care through negotiations and beyond.”

With their contract set to expire June 30, Michigan Medicine nurses are calling for fairer wages and additional staff to address what they called a shortage of workers. | Photo courtesy of the Michigan Nurses Association

But Michigan Medicine nurses disagreed, saying patient care is suffering because of a shortage of workers. The MNA noted in a press release that nurses have sent more than 800 forms documenting concerns about unsafe staffing, among other patient care issues, this year. That compares to 1,000 in the entire previous year.

“Management forces us to work mandatory overtime – 16-hour shifts – which forces us to choose between our patients and being there for our families,” Paulsen said during last week’s Board of Regents meeting. “It’s not safe for nurses or patients.

“People from around the country come to Michigan Medicine, and we simply can’t take care of them because management won’t fix the chronic understaffing, despite all of my union’s suggestions to fix the problems,” Paulsen continued. 

Regent Denise Ilitch thanked the nurses who spoke during the meeting. 

“We are being assured that these issues that you’ve outlined are being addressed,” Ilitch said. “But please come back and keep us updated.”

Throughout the pandemic, employees frustrated by dangerous working conditions and dissipating benefits have secured contracts that boost wages

Facing daunting working conditions during the pandemic, employees throughout the state and country have secured contracts that boost wages and provide additional benefits. At Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, for example, unionized health care workers ratified a three-year contract in December that increased wages and created incentives to attract and retain health care workers. In December, unionized Kellogg’s workers from four states, including a cereal plant in Battle Creek, voted to approve a new five-year contract that increased wages and expanded health care.

“If you are awake…you know this is a workers’ revolution right now,” state Rep. Sarah Anthony said during a rally to support Sparrow workers in November. “Every corner of the state is on fire.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included 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.