Nurses and community members rally outside of Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo on Nov. 12, 2022. | Photo courtesy of Michigan Nurses Association
Lori Batzloff, a registered nurse at Kalamazoo’s Ascension Borgess Hospital, vividly remembers the worst days of the pandemic: the deaths and the trauma and how she would lift iPads to her dying patients’ faces so their family members could say goodbye.
She remembers the days to come, the protests from those who didn’t believe COVID-19 was real. After long, emotional days, she remembers their vitriol.
And she can recall being called a hero by an employer union members are now battling to secure a labor contract that would result in more nurses being hired after workers said the pandemic, a staffing crisis, stagnant wages, and decreased benefits pushed many out the door. Nurses at the Kalamazoo hospital have been working without a contract since Nov. 11.
“The hospital would call us heroes, but we don’t feel like we are being treated like heroes,” Batzloff said. “… Now, today things are somewhat back to normal as far as our patient population. We still see COVID patients, but it’s not anything like it was thanks to the vaccine. Now that we’re through that and getting back to normal, we’re still not seeing any recognition from Ascension. We are heroes, and we helped pull this community through this.”
Batzloff, who is also the president of the local Michigan Nurses Association bargaining unit at Ascension Borgess, and the majority of nurses at the hospital this week voted in favor of giving their union bargaining team the ability to call for a labor strike if negotiations break down.
Eighty-six percent of the nurses at Ascension Borgess voted in favor of the strike authorization. The vote ended late Tuesday night, and negotiations between the union and the hospital are slated to be held again on Thursday. A hospital spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Ascension Borgess is part of the St. Louis, Missouri-based Catholic health care system Ascension, which operates 139 hospitals and 40 senior living facilities in 19 states and the District of Columbia.
If nurses decide to strike, the hospital would be provided with 10 days of notice.
During the pandemic, nurses were being paid premium wages by many companies. At Ascension, rather than reward nurses for staying and attempting to retain nurses, they allowed those nurses to go elsewhere. Many of those nurses have not come back.
– Lori Batzloff, a registered nurse at Ascension Borgess Hospital
Nurses hope the strike authorization vote will prompt action from an employer they said has been reluctant to raise wages and provide other benefits for health care employees facing trauma and burnout after working in a pandemic for nearly three years.
“Time and again, Ascension executives have shown that they only respond to nurses when we speak out and show our solidarity,” said Nate Hoffman, a nurse at the hospital and a member of the union’s bargaining team. “I am truly hopeful that now that [registered nurses] have shown we are prepared to do what it takes, we will be able to reach a deal.”
Prior to last week’s contract negotiations session, union members said Ascension executives were demanding that nurses accept “major concessions” in their contract. However, they said that changed following a community rally in favor of the nurses and an announcement that a strike authorization vote would take place. On Dec. 1, hospital executives formally withdrew their proposals requiring nurses to work every other weekend and taking away all contractually protected leaves.
Prior to the pandemic, the hospital was struggling with retaining workers who were leaving for better paying jobs elsewhere – but COVID-19 exacerbated that, Batzloff said.
“The COVID pandemic really pushed hospitals to recognize the value of nurses,” she said. “Nurses were able to choose where they wanted to work. Nursing has always been a high demand profession, and the pandemic made it even moreso.
“During the pandemic, nurses were being paid premium wages by many companies,” Batzloff continued. “At Ascension, rather than reward nurses for staying and attempting to retain nurses, they allowed those nurses to go elsewhere. Many of those nurses have not come back.”
The number of nurses at the hospital have “dwindled for years,” Batzloff said.
When she began working there about six and a half years ago, there were approximately 700 unionized nurses. Today, there are about 350, according to Batzloff. Part of that exodus can be attributed to the pandemic, but much of it is rooted in low wages and dissipating benefits that existed prior to COVID-19, the union president said.
However, the pandemic has exacerbated the labor issues at the hospital, Batzloff said, leaving nurses with far fewer colleagues and a hefty increase in mandatory on-call time. When nurses are on call, they receive “very little pay,” Batzloff said, but must be ready at a moment’s notice to arrive at the hospital for an emergency. This, she explained, is further adding to an exodus of workers.
“During the pandemic, nurses had the ability to make a lot of money in a short amount of time,” Batzloff said. “If you’re going to work as hard as you’re working and emotionally carry the things we had to see and do, a lot of nurses thought, ‘If I’m going to do this, then at least I can be better compensated for this work.’”
Facing daunting working conditions during the pandemic, nurses and other workers across the state and country have gone on strike, or threatened to strike, to secure better wages and benefits. Unionized University of Michigan nurses, for example, threatened to strike before reaching a four-year contract with their employer in October. At Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, unionized health care workers ratified a three-year contract that increased wages and created incentives to attract and retain workers. Kellogg’s workers, also unionized, in Battle Creek approved a contract that boosted wages and expanded health care.
“If you are awake…you know this is a workers’ revolution right now,” state Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) said during a rally to support Sparrow workers. “Every corner of the state is on fire.”
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