‘Everyone is exhausted and burned out’: McLaren Central nurses authorize potential strike
Nurses say understaffing is pushing workers from their jobs
Susan J. Demas
For nearly 20 years, Christie Serniak has loved being a nurse at McLaren Central Michigan Hospital in Mount Pleasant. As tends to be the case in health care, there have been plenty of ups and downs — this is, after all, a world in which life begins and ends.
But, over the past couple of years, COVID-19 has brought about a radically different landscape in which nurses have lived and worked in a pandemic that has left them feeling deeply burnt out and often traumatized. And, Serniak and other McLaren Central nurses said, workers at the Mount Pleasant hospital are feeling as though hospital executives have turned their backs on them as they try to hash out a new contract that would both attract and retain nurses in a now understaffed hospital.
That, Serniak said, is why 96% of unionized nurses at McLaren Central voted Thursday to authorize a strike should union leaders determine it’s necessary in negotiations over their contract that expired in November. There are about 100 nurses who work at McLaren Central.
“We have been really united over this because of the fact that everyone is exhausted and burned out from the working conditions in health care,” Serniak said.
The strike authorization vote — which doesn’t guarantee there will be a strike but allows the hospital’s democratically elected bargaining team to call one — comes “despite a concerted pressure campaign on the part of McLaren executives to discourage nurses from authorizing a strike,” the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) said in a press release issued Thursday evening.
“McLaren’s administration sent out multiple communications threatening nurses with the loss of healthcare and even their continued employment should they strike while attempting to suppress nurses’ legal rights to communicate with one another about the vote,” the MNA wrote.
McLaren spokesman, David Jones, said in a statement provided to the Advance on Friday that “the union’s allegations are false and a distortion of the truth.
“McLaren provided education materials to nurses about the facts of a strike so they could make an informed decision when voting on whether to authorize a strike.”
We have been really united over this because of the fact that everyone is exhausted and burned out from the working conditions in health care.
– Christie Serniak, a nurse at McLaren Central Michigan Hospital
Robert David, McLaren Central Michigan president and CEO, said in a statement sent to the Advance on Friday that the hospital was not surprised by the strike authorization vote.
“The union is using common bargaining tactics to try to pressure the hospital at the bargaining table,” David said. “We are committed to bargaining a new contract that provides value to our nurses and is fair to our community hospital. We will not let such antics detract us from our goal. To that end, we have already implemented the initial phases of our strike preparedness plan to ensure continuation of quality healthcare without interruption.
“Our focus continues to be providing high-quality care during a difficult time in healthcare,” David continued. “Despite the significant financial challenges and volume declines, we have made offers to invest in our nurses with competitive wage increases to address recruitment and retention issues. Although our nurses at McLaren Central Michigan have some of the best nurse-to-patient ratios in the state, we have worked with the union prior to and during negotiations to ensure we have safe staffing, competitive wages and great working conditions.”
According to the hospital president, the contract proposals given to the union have been “market competitive that amount to an average of 15% increases over the course of three years.” The current offer also includes a $1,000 ratification bonus, David said.
Nurses at McLaren described a dramatically different experience than the one the hospital issued. Throughout the pandemic, underpaid and overworked nurses have left the hospital — and a number of the people hired to replace them have departed as well because of a staffing shortage that has resulted in nurses feeling overwhelmed and defeated, Serniak said.
“Competitive wages aren’t the only thing we’re asking for, but competitive wages play a role in the ability to retain and recruit nurses,” Serniak said.
“Nurses are fed up with waiting for things to get better, and we are united and we will stand together to get a fair contract,” she continued. “…The current environment is difficult and definitely leads to burnout, even though nurses do love their jobs and do enjoy taking care of the patients in this community. But it gets to the point where you just have to maintain your own mental and physical health versus continuing in such an environment.”
I want to walk into every shift knowing that we will have enough nurses to look after our patients safely.
– Jennifer Hoeve, a nurse at McLaren Central Michigan Hospital
Faced with understaffing, there has been what feels like a revolving door of nurses being pushed from their jobs largely because of burnout, Serniak said. And even when there are new nurses hired, that doesn’t resolve the staffing issue because they or others will soon leave, she explained.
“You get through training somebody; you’ve made these hires and go through the process of training them, and you have this sense of hope that your staffing issues are going to be resolved, but shortly thereafter somebody else leaves so you’re back to square one, short-staffed,” Serniak said. “This happens over and over and over. It’s defeating.”
If working conditions do not improve, the hospital will continue to hemorrhage nurses and patient care will suffer because of that, nurses said.
“It’s important for McLaren executives to understand how committed nurses are to keeping our patients safe,” said Jessica Harradine, a nurse at McLaren Central and the president of the hospital’s local MNA bargaining unit. “It is deeply troubling that McLaren’s CEO makes millions of dollars a year while our hospital struggles to retain the nurses we need. Our patients must come before healthcare executives’ profits.”
McLaren Health Care CEO Philip Incarnati’s pay increased from about $8.15 million in 2020 to approximately $8.75 million in 2021, according to 990 tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service. McLaren Central is part of the McLaren Health Care system, a $6 billion system that operates 14 hospitals in Michigan and Ohio.
Nurses are hopeful things will change — in many ways, it feels as though they will have to if executives want to continue to have nurses working there, they said. But that hope is mixed with an ever-plummeting morale, Serniak said.
“Morale? It’s defeated,” she said. “There’s no end in sight at times, and I think with contract negotiation comes an opportunity to work with management to secure a contract that will help to alleviate these issues and help to retain and recruit staff, help us staff safely and avoid this rollercoaster. It’s unfortunate that management chose to respond in the way that they did.”
Ultimately, nurses said, they simply want enough nurses that every shift does not feel like a crisis.
“I want to walk into every shift knowing that we will have enough nurses to look after our patients safely,” said Jennifer Hoeve, a nurse at McLaren Central. “I hope that McLaren executives see reason, but if not, we’ve shown with this vote that we’re willing to do what it takes. It’s time for nurses and patients to have a say in how hospitals are run.”
The McLaren Central vote comes at a time when nurses across the state and country are approving strike authorizations as they face staffing shortages and burnout in a pandemic that’s now entering its third year. Nurses at another mid-Michigan hospital, MyMichigan Alma, approved a strike authorization on Wednesday.
Since 2021, nurses at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor, Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo and Sparrow Hospital in Lansing authorized strikes before reaching contract agreements with hospital executives.
Negotiations with McLaren executives are scheduled to resume on Jan. 30.
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