More than 1,000 University of Michigan nurses set to picket as they fight for new contract

By: - July 15, 2022 4:00 am

Nurses and Michigan Medicine administration have been regularly meeting about the contract since March. Susan J. Demas | Michigan Advance

Renee Curtis has seen a lot in her two decades working as an emergency department nurse at the University of Michigan’s hospital in Ann Arbor. 

But she never expected to be where she is now: fighting for Michigan Medicine to address what she called a staffing crisis that has prompted an exodus of both longtime and new nurses to leave their jobs in a profession they love.

“The University of Michigan has been chronically understaffing nursing,” said Curtis, the president of the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council (UMPNC), a subset of the Michigan Nurses Association, the largest nurses union in the state. “We’ve been yelling and screaming at the administration, literally, to have them staff appropriately.”

Curtis is one of about 6,200 registered nurses represented by UMPNC who have been working without a contract since it expired on June 30. To raise awareness around the staffing conditions at the hospital, more than 1,000 University of Michigan nurses and other community members are slated to hold an informational picket on Saturday. The picket will begin at 10 a.m. at Fuller Park Field 7. The picket is not a strike; all nurses there will be off-duty.

Union leaders said the administration is failing to address chronic understaffing, a lack of competitive pay and a more supportive work environment that doesn’t include the kind of mandatory overtime that nurses have been forced to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The understaffing at the hospital has translated to hundreds of nurses leaving the Ann Arbor facility and an “extremely high” turnover rate — 16% — for new graduates working at the hospital over the past year, the union president said.

“It’s [understaffing] the worst I’ve ever seen, and that’s why we’re speaking out and why we’re pushing the way we are,” Curtis said.

The University of Michigan said in a statement provided to the Advance that officials from the University of Michigan Health – the clinical division of Michigan Medicine – are “continuing to work in earnest with the U-M Professional Nurses Council to create a new labor agreement” after the previous contract expired on June 30.

“I could not be prouder of our nurses and the care they provide,” Nancy May, Michigan Medicine’s chief nursing executive and a nurse for 47 years, said in a statement provided to the Advance. “Because we deeply value our nurses, we’ve put together a generous package that recognizes the value they bring to our patients and our organization.”

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In its statement, the University of Michigan said its current proposal eliminates mandatory overtime within the next two years or sooner, raises the average annual salary by year four to $121,541 for all nurses in the bargaining unit, and provides a 5% raise for nurses every year for four years.

The university also noted that Michigan Medicine nurses continue to work and be paid at the same rate as before the contract expired. 

“Michigan Medicine is a place where nurses want to work, and we want it to continue to be that way,” said Dr. David Miller, president of University of Michigan Health. “Our vacancy rate of 5% is lower than the national average of 17%, and our pay is higher than the national average. We are so grateful that our nurses choose to work and build their careers at Michigan Medicine because they know we value them and invest in their careers.”

But other Michigan Medicine nurses said that does not reflect their experiences.

“If Michigan Medicine was competitive in their wages, in their benefits, they would attract new nurses,” Curtis said. “If they improve working conditions and staff the hospital appropriately, then we’d be able to retain experienced nurses. But between being short-staffed and the mandatory overtime, nurses are tired.”

University of Michigan nurses paint a rock on the school’s campus as they prepare for an informational picket on Saturday, July 16. | Photo courtesy of the Michigan Nurses Association

And after two years of working in a pandemic that has left health care workers across the state and country deeply burned out, Curtis said nurses are leaving a profession they love out of fatigue and frustration. 

“With the conditions in which nurses were working and being forced to work, nurses started leaving,” Curtis said. “They started reevaluating what they were doing and the risk versus the reward and knowing our lives are on the line every day when we go into work.”

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.”

More than 4,000 UMPNC nurses have signed a petition calling for an end to understaffing, no more “unsafe forced overtime” and competitive wages that can recruit and retain nurses and outpace inflation.

Union leaders noted 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.

Adam Paulsen, a pediatric intensive care unit nurse at Michigan Medicine, said during a June 16 University of Michigan Board of Regents meeting that “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 June 16 University of Michigan Board of Regents meeting. “Now they offer us contracts that cut our protections.”

Like Curtis, Paulsen said the mandatory overtime is a significant problem that’s driving nurses to leave their jobs.

“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 the 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. 

Saturday’s picket comes just days after the Board of Regents voted to appoint Santa J. Ono, a biomedical researcher and president and vice chancellor of the University of British Columbia, as its new president. Ono will take the university’s reins after the Board of Regents fired its former president, Mark Schlissel, in January, amid a scandal involving his relationship with a subordinate.

University of Michigan nurses said they hope Ono will prove to be an ally for them. 

With Saturday’s picket, Curtis said she hopes the university will listen to both nurses and the community at large about changes she hopes will happen at the hospital.

“We’d like to retain and attract new talent and get nurses to come back into a profession many of us adore and love,” Curtis said. “It’s going to take a change in the conditions, and that’s what we’re fighting for.”

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 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.

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