Sparrow Hospital caregivers approve new contract that boosts wages, guarantees N95 respirators

click to enlarge Sparrow Hospital workers call for fairer pay and better benefits at an “informational strike.” - Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson
Sparrow Hospital workers call for fairer pay and better benefits at an “informational strike.”

Unionized health care workers at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing voted to ratify a new three-year contract late last week, averting a recently authorized strike, ending months of tense negotiations, and creating incentives needed to attract and retain health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, union officials said Monday.

Ninety-six percent of the caregivers in the Professional Employee Council of Sparrow Hospital (PECSH) union — including nurses, pharmacists, social workers, and therapists — who voted Thursday and Friday on the new contract supported ratifying it, the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) said. PESCH is a local subset of the MNA; it represents about 2,200 Sparrow employees.

The new contract boosts wages, guarantees protective equipment for caregivers treating COVID-19 patients, and mandates that the hospital honors fixed nurse-to-patient ratios in a pandemic, among other incentives, union officials said. Under the new deal, a starting wage for an entry-level nurse will be around $30 an hour, and the average bedside nurse would see a wage increase of about 20% over three years. Additionally, the contract will not increase workers’ health care costs or reduce the number of available sick days, as hospital administrators had once proposed.

“We’re really excited about the agreement; we think the gains we were able to win will help us with recruiting new talent and experienced caregivers, as well as retaining the caregivers we have,” Katie Pontifex, a Sparrow Hospital nurse and PECSH president, said in an interview Monday.

“We ended up with zero changes to our health insurance, which was a huge win,” Pontifex continued. “At one point, they wanted to increase health insurance to the point of it pricing some part-time people out of being able to work there, so that was a huge change.”

Sparrow Hospital released a statement late Friday announcing its support for the new contract. 

“We are pleased to have secured a new long-term contract covering our hardworking and dedicated caregivers,” Amy Brown, Sparrow Hospital chief nursing officer, said in the prepared statement. “We are grateful to all of our caregivers for continuing to put our patients and the community first by delivering outstanding care during these unprecedented times.”

PECSH members have been working without a contract since Oct. 30, and collective bargaining had been going on for a little more than four months as union leaders and hospital administrators wrangled over a contract that Sparrow employees said needed to better support workers during the pandemic. Sparrow Hospital, like health care facilities across the state, is currently facing an onslaught of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients as Michigan once again battles the highest COVID-19 case numbers in the country. 

Union officials noted being able to both attract and retain workers is much needed as Sparrow faces an ongoing shortage of health care workers. The hospital, like health care facilities across the country, faced a shortage before COVID-19, and the pandemic has further exacerbated that. The stress of working under COVID-19 combined with little wage increases and a loss of benefits prompted people to leave their jobs during the pandemic, Sparrow workers said in previous interviews. Union officials previously said Sparrow Hospital needs at least another 90 nurses to have a full staff.

“In the ER, we’ll work ourselves to the bone to get our work done [because of staffing shortages], but you can only sustain that for so long,” LJ Knight, a nurse in Sparrow’s emergency room, told the Advance in November. “We’re losing experienced nurses. Either they’re retiring early or leaving the profession altogether.”

Under the new contract, Sparrow agreed to provide an N95 respirator, or the equivalent, for employees working with COVID-19 patients. Union officials said this is particularly important because the emergency Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules requiring hospitals to provide appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for individuals working with COVID-19 patients are set to expire on Dec. 21. So far, the federal government has made no move to extend the OSHA rules.

“This contract makes both caregivers and patients safer,” Tammy Parsons, a Sparrow nurse and PECSH treasurer, said in a press release. “We are proud to lead on this issue and hope that this contract will help pave the way for other hospitals in the state to make similar commitments to caregivers and to the community. The pandemic has been here for almost two years now. Safe staffing and proper PPE need to be treated as an essential requirement, not an optional luxury.”

The guaranteed protective equipment brings workers some peace of mind as they witness a surge of COVID-19 patients to the hospital — though Pontifex noted nurses and other staff are facing significant difficulties as they treat increasingly younger patients coming through their doors.

“This particular [COVID-19] staring is hitting our younger population, so our nurses are really struggling with that right now,” Pontifex said. “Every death is tragic, and we take that home with us. But now these aren’t patients who are our parents’ and grandparents’ ages; it’s people who are our age. It’s becoming more difficult.”

MNA officials said Sparrow is now the only hospital in the region to contractually guarantee fixed nurse-to-patient ratios. There had been a fixed ratio in the previous contract, but union leaders said the hospital had argued it didn’t have to follow that ratio because of the pandemic. The ratio not being followed during the pandemic was one of the reasons the MNA filed an unfair labor practice charge against Sparrow last month.

“We believe that this is truly one of the best contracts in the state, if not the country,” said Kevin Glaza, a pharmacist at Sparrow Hospital and the vice president of PECSH. 

Glaza went on to note the community’s support for Sparrow workers. In November, for example, community members and local elected officials marched with employees during an “informational picket.”

During the picket, elected officials noted that employees, fed up with dissipating wages and benefits, have been increasingly walking off the job amid a pandemic that has left them to face health risks when coming to work. Kellogg workers in Battle Creek, for example, have been on strike since Oct. 5.

“If you are awake in 2021, you know this is a workers’ revolution right now,” state Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) said during the November picket. “Every corner of the state is on fire.

Originally published December 13, 2021 on Michigan Advance. It is shared here with permission.

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