Nurses and community members rally outside of Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo on Nov. 12, 2022. | Photo courtesy of Michigan Nurses Association
Nurses at Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo ratified a new contract that increases wages and boosts benefits in an attempt to attract and retain workers, the union representing them announced Wednesday night.
The three-year agreement covers more than 300 registered nurses who have been working without a contract since Nov. 11, the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) said. The deal comes a little more than one week after the hospital’s nurses voted to authorize their bargaining team to call a strike over what union leaders and workers described as unfair labor practices that have pushed health care workers from their jobs and left those remaining physically and emotionally drained.
“This new contract clearly shows the difference that nurses can make when we are united together as a union,” said Lori Batzloff, a nurse at Ascension Borgess and president of the local MNA bargaining unit. “We were able to win improvements that will benefit our patients and community as a whole.”
Ascension Borgess is part of the St. Louis, Mo.-based Catholic health care system Ascension, which operates 139 hospitals and 40 senior living facilities in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Hospital administration did not return a request for comment.
Highlights of the new contract include average wage raises of 20.5% in the first year of the contract, the addition of an emergency personal day for all nurses to help retain workers, and increasing on-call pay.
In an interview last week, Batzloff said the administration has for years been reluctant to raise wages and provide other benefits for nurses who have increasingly been leaving hospital positions to find more lucrative and stable nursing jobs.
“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.”
Doris Goodrich, a nurse at Ascension Borgess and a member of the nurses’ bargaining team, praised the new contract and thanked community members who rallied last month in support of the nurses. Following November’s rally, which was led by the MNA, Ascension agreed to withdraw their proposals demanding that registered nurses be required to work every other weekend and eliminating all contractually guaranteed leaves.
“I am so proud of what we were able to accomplish together as nurses by showing our solidarity and grateful for the amazing support we had from our community,” Goodrich said. “We hope that this contract will mark the beginning of a new chapter at our hospital and for our patients.”
Batzloff said last week she hopes a new contract will be indicative of a new era at the hospital, where she said the number of nurses have “dwindled for years.”
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.
“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.’”
This departure of workers left nurses with far fewer colleagues and a hefty increase in mandatory on-call time, the union leader said. When nurses are on call, they have received “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. The new contract includes increasing on-call pay to $5 an hour.
Ascension Borgess nurses’ fight for a new contract is reminiscent of workers across the state and country who have gone on strike, or threatened to go on strike, to secure better wages and benefits after facing daunting working conditions during the pandemic. 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, who also are unionized, in Battle Creek approved a contract that boosted wages and expanded health care.
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