Sparrow nursing staff calls attention to working conditions affecting patient care
by Lucas VanAntwerp
Throughout the last 21 months, the pandemic has significantly complicated healthcare, which affected the way nurses were able to provide medical care to the community. The effects of Covid have been recently seen at Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital.
Recently, according to many of the nurses, the working conditions at the hospital have become dangerous and unfair.
On Nov. 3, the nurses union held an informational picket in front of the hospital, which was in order to raise awareness about what was happening behind the hospital walls. The union went out of contract on Oct. 31, and the new contract is still under negotiation by the demand of the nurses. The union held an internal vote to authorize a strike, and 96 percent of the union's nurses endorsed it on Nov. 23.
A longtime employee of the Lansing Sparrow Hospital, Katie Pontifex, has many titles including: PECSH President, BS, BSN, RN, CMSRN and a member of the Board of Directors for the Michigan Nurses Association.
“Throughout my career, I have seen the ups and downs of healthcare, but I have never seen the “down” be so low. I truly am concerned about the state of healthcare at this point and how we can begin to heal and rebound from what the healthcare industry has become,” Pontifex said.
Pontifex said one of the main reasons the nurses union held a vote to authorize a strike was safety concerns: not being taken seriously and no hint of action to solve their concerns.
“We felt that our concerns for the safety of ourselves and our patients paired with the significant loss of staff over the past year was creating an unsafe environment and the Employer was not taking our concerns seriously,” Pontix said. “They continued to bring frivolous proposals to the bargaining table that looked to penalize our staff instead of incentivizing them to stay. Recruitment and retention of experienced staff is vital to the safety of our patients.”
Sparrow’s nurses union says it is looking for reasonable changes that will benefit all nurses, which will provide a safer and more positive environment for the hospital’s community.
“The union is looking for wage increases consistent with or better than the cost-of-living adjustment, affordable health insurance and safe staffing. With the lack of nurses and healthcare professionals, coupled with the lack of our ancillary colleagues such as Patient Care Techs, Dietary assistance and Environmental Services, the environment at the hospital has become increasingly unsafe,” Pontifex said.
Pontifex explained the seriousness of an understaffed hospital, which can have significant consequences on patients' treatment and safety.
“Research shows that a nurse, for example, should not care for more than 3-4 patients in a general medical setting. Right now, our RNs are caring for upwards of 6-7 patients on a day shift and up to 9-10 patients on a night shift. This means that care is often delayed, if not missed entirely, medications are administered late, patients wait entirely too long for assistance to the toilet and subtle changes in our patients go missed,” Pontifex said.
Pontifex said she has many feelings about current working conditions at Sparrow, but most of all, she feels angry.
“The overall feelings right now include anger, defeat and exhaustion – all because we are overworked and understaffed and feel completely unappreciated by our employer. …For over 20 months we have given so much of ourselves time and again – what more could they possibly want?” Pontifex said.
The nurses union held a picket to show the employers that the union was determined to authorize a strike if no change was made and their voices weren’t heard.
“It wasn’t until we announced our informational picket (that took place November 3rd – with an attendance of over 1200 people), that they finally brought forward a serious proposal with wages that suggested they might finally be ready to truly negotiate, although conversations fizzled immediately,” Pontifex said.
Following the picket, almost all of Sparrow’s nurses union members voted to authorize a strike if warranted, which was because of the repeated unsatisfactory contract negotiations.
Pontifex said a strike is the last resort, but the best strike is one that is not forced to happen.
“I went into nursing to care for others. As nurses and healthcare professionals, we advocate for the best interests of our patients and that includes their safety. When it comes down to it, that’s what we’re fighting for,” Pontifex said.
In another interview, Sparrow nurse Katherine Lowe* agreed with Pontifex in hopes of coming to an agreement before a strike is warranted.
“First and foremost, I want to say that the majority of nurses really do not want to strike at all and we remain hopeful that we can come to an agreement very soon,” Lowe said.
Lowe also claimed not to feel valued as an experienced registered nurse should be.
“ I don't want to just feel like a number or someone that can easily be replaced, ” Lowe said.
Lowe voted yes to authorize a strike if need be, which is in order to no longer allow the employer management to take advantage of the nurses during the pandemic.
“I feel like it's time to get a message across that we are serious about our requests and we will not allow management to continue to take advantage of us during this difficult time while working through a pandemic,” Lowes said.
Nurse Nicole Reynolds, who was hired this year, said staffing was her number one concern.
“I have had 7 or 8 patients while being in charge during a night shift on a medical surgical unit. A normal staffing ratio for a charge nurse should be 4, maybe 5. Having the increase in patients is incredibly unsafe for one nurse to try to take care of,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said that a strike would not be good for anyone, but possibly necessary to ensure a new contract is signed with the demanded changes made to their contract.
“Sadly, the community would suffer as Sparrow Hospital is a huge empire with multiple urgent cares, labs, and pharmacies around the area that would all lose an incredible amount of staff. The staff behind a huge corporation like this runs the hospital; if they lost that support it would make receiving treatment a struggle,” Reynolds said.
According to an article from Dec. 3rd in the Lansing State Journal, the union and employers of Sparrows nurses have reached a contract agreement. Here's a brief list of updates made to the contract:
In 3 years, a nurse could expect to see up to a 20% wage increase.
A decrease in healthcare premium.
No changes in the sick day agreement.
An agreement to not let patient to staff ratios rise above unsafe levels.
Guaranteed access to personal protective equipment for every nurse.
Kathrine Lowe* - Name has been changed for privacy.
Graphic Credit Lucas VanAntwerp. Photo Credit Lansing State Journal