Michigan Nurses Association sues University of Michigan over ‘staffing crisis’

By: - August 17, 2022 2:24 pm

Michigan Medicine | Susan J. Demas

Every day, nurses at the University of Michigan’s hospital in Ann Arbor go to their union president to make reports. They are overworked. Exhausted. Burnt out.

After two and a half years of working during the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan Medicine nurses are feeling crushed under the weight of what union officials said is an increasingly dire staffing shortage that is prompting an exodus of nurses from the hospital.

Michigan Medicine nurses plan to share their experiences with the community during a town hall Thursday from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at IBEW Local 252, 7920 Jackson Rd. in Ann Arbor. To attend, community members are asked to RSVP at minurses.org/townhallally.

“As (University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council) president, I receive reports from nurses every day about the staffing crisis at Michigan Medicine,” UMPNC President Renee Curtis said in an affidavit included in a lawsuit that the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) filed against the University of Michigan on Monday. “On a day-to-day basis, RN (registered nurse) workload is too heavy. RNs are too frequently called upon to care for more patients than is advisable.”

This kind of workload, Curtis said in the lawsuit, is dangerous to nurses and patients alike.

“The burden on RNs from excess workloads harms nurses physically and mentally, puts them at risk of making a career-ending patient error, and leaves them demoralized, in good part because Michigan Medicine nurses want to provide the professional patient care that led them to our profession and Michigan Medicine in the first place,” Curtis said in her affidavit.

The alleged chronic understaffing, which Curtis said began to soar during the pandemic and is now at levels the union president said she’s never before seen, is why union officials said they decided to file their lawsuit in the Michigan Court of Claims this week. The lawsuit alleges that the University of Michigan is refusing to bargain over nurses’ workloads in its current contract negotiations with the UMPNC, which is a subset of the MNA. The University of Michigan Board of Regents holds the contract with UMPNC.

The MNA also filed on Monday an unfair labor practice charge against the University of Michigan with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC). The lawsuit asks for an injunction forcing the university to bargain over workload ratios immediately, pending MERC’s ruling on the unfair labor practice charge. The unfair labor practice charge alleges that the university is violating the Public Employment Relations Act, which designates workload and safety as mandatory subjects of bargaining.

“When nurses are forced to take care of too many people at once, patient care gets compromised and nurses are put in danger of injury or burnout, and that’s happening far too often at our hospital,” Curtis said. “Our union is fighting for patient safety, first and foremost. It’s absurd to think that conversations about how to keep patients safe can be effective without talking about our nurses’ workloads.”

About 6,200 nurses represented by the UMPNC have been working without a contract since July 1. Negotiations are continuing, but the MNA said in a press release that a “major stumbling block is the administration’s refusal to discussion a top priority for nurses — their workload in terms of number of patients assigned per nurse, which is tied directly to patient safety concerns that nurses have been raising for months.”

The University of Michigan Health, the clinical division of Michigan Medicine, said in a statement emailed to the Advance that it plans to “vigorously defend itself in the lawsuit” filed by the MNA. According to the statement, the University of Michigan Health “makes staffing determinations with patient safety at the forefront of its decisions, and this has produced outstanding safety results.”

The university said in its statement that it continues “to bargain in good faith” and that its current contract offer to the UMPNC includes a 6% raise for nurses in the first year and a 5% raise per year for the following three years. The offer also includes “safely eliminating mandatory overtime,” according to the statement.

When nurses are forced to take care of too many people at once, patient care gets compromised and nurses are put in danger of injury or burnout, and that’s happening far too often at our hospital.

– UMPNC President Renee Curtis

“Although the labor agreement has officially expired, University of Michigan Health’s nurses continue to work under the same terms and conditions of the expired contract and be paid at the same rate as before the expiration,” the university wrote.

But Curtis said the conditions at the hospital are more dire than ever before.

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 in a previous interview.

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.

The MNA noted in a Tuesday press release that Michigan Medicine nurses have filed about 1,090 forms with management that document concerns about unsafe staffing, among other patient care issues, this year. That compares to 1,000 in all of 2021.

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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.