Covid Is Surging, Flu Is Spreading, and Alarmed Sparrow Hospital Nurses Are Voting on a Possible Strike (UPDATED)

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Sparrow Hospital's emergency entrance.

This article has been updated to include additional information on the strike vote. Article was originally published on Friday, Nov. 19, at 5 a.m.

The local healthcare infrastructure is showing signs of extraordinary stress, as Covid numbers here are surging upward, the flu is spreading, and Sparrow Hospital healthcare professionals –exhausted by the pandemic experience – are seeking better working conditions. Local nurses tell ELi they are at this point seriously worried about patients needing hospital care, and hospital administrators are also concerned.

Sparrow nurses are now voting on a possible strike.

Members of the Professional Employees Council of Sparrow Hospital (PECSH-MNA) union are now in the process of holding a strike authorization vote, according to a press release from the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA). The vote is open from Nov. 16 through Nov. 21.

PECSH-MNA represents 53 classifications of workers, including nurses, pharmacists, and laboratory scientists. Union members who spoke to East Lansing Info (ELi) cited the pandemic and severe staffing shortages as points of stress during contract negotiations.

ELi reported in December 2020 that staffing shortages have been a problem for Sparrow during the pandemic. At that time, Sparrow Spokesperson John Foren said that the entire Sparrow system needed to fill about one thousand vacancies.

Now, nearly a year later, PESCH-MNA President and Sparrow nurse Katie Pontifex tells ELi in regard to the strike vote, “Sparrow is hemorrhaging employees right now, and it means all of us are stretched too thin.”

When asked for comment about the strike authorization vote this week, Foren sent ELi a statement that said, “Sparrow Hospital does not want a strike and we believe nothing we have proposed warrants a strike.”

What has been going on with contract negotiations between PECSH and Sparrow?

Negotiations for a new contract began in August 2021, and according to Pontifex, since Oct. 31, nearly 2,200 Sparrow employees have been working without a contract. Any new collective bargaining agreement would cover all those workers, Pontifex told ELi.

According Sparrow’s statement, “Sparrow and PECSH-MNA jointly agreed to bring a federal mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service into our sessions.”

As ELi reported last month, PESCH-MNA had called for an informational picket on Nov. 3, to draw attention to the ongoing contract negotiations and staffing problems.

“It was time to let our community know about the rampant short staffing and the way Sparrow executives are treating their local caregivers, and we succeeded in ​doing so,” said Pontifex, who says that about a thousand people attended the picket.

The strike authorization vote runs through Sunday, and, by law, the union must give Sparrow a 10-day notice before setting a strike date.

“The vote, if successful, does n​ot mean we will definitely strike – it gives the negotiating team the ability to call a strike if that’s where Sparrow executives force us,” explained Pontifex.

“We are disappointed that the nurses’ union, PECSH-MNA, is moving forward with a strike authorization vote among its membership,” read Sparrow’s statement, which also noted that “members have the right to vote for or against a strike authorization and we encourage them to exercise that right.”

“We continue to hope a strike does not take place, but if it does, Sparrow is fully prepared and equipped to continue serving our patients and the community,” says Sparrow.

PESCH cites Covid-related hospital conditions as a reason for a strike authorization vote. Sparrow cites them as a reason against.

“Nurses and health professionals are exhausted from giving everything we’ve got for almost two years now. Patients are sicker than before [and] we’ve seen too much death and loss,” said Pontifex. “But it’s being constantly short-staffed that really gets to us. It’s not just nursing – the rampant short staffing has made ​the job of every health professional harder.”   

“We are advocating for our patients and our community – especially the ability to recruit and retain nurses and health professionals so we can provide the best care possible,” Pontifex said, adding that being short-staffed is the primary concern.

Robert Mavrogordato, who has been a nurse at Sparrow for nine years, told ELi that working short-staffed isn’t new and isn’t limited to the nurses in the hospital. But now, he says, “Working conditions at Sparrow are increasingly unsustainable.”

“The staffing issues we are seeing in nursing are not new, but Covid has made them exponentially worse,” Mavrogordato said. “Some might have you believe we have a nursing shortage problem, but those of us on the frontlines know it is a recruitment and retention issue.”

“Nurses are reportedly quitting almost as soon as they are onboarded, overwhelmed and underprepared to safely care for so many patients,” according to Mavrogordato. “That is truly the ‘red line” for nurses’ – day in and day out feeling like you aren’t doing right by your patients. And when you feel that way long enough, you leave.” 

“We need fair wages that keep up with inflation, affordable health care, PPE guarantees, and no repercussions when we have to call in sick,” Pontifex told ELi. These things, she believes, are crucial to recruiting and retaining workers.

“We hope they will not be convinced to walk out on the patients and families who depend on them to provide high-quality, compassionate care, especially as we experience another COVID surge,” read the Sparrow statement. “Our ability to continue to protect the community, as we have done throughout the pandemic and through our entire 125 years, would be impacted by a walkout.”

Ingham County’s Covid numbers are definitely up, as are hospitalizations.

As of Nov. 16 – the day the Ingham County Health Department last updated its data – there are currently 3,756 active Covid-19 cases in Ingham County, with 1,456 new cases reported in just one week.

Ingham County reported a total of 29 deaths from Covid in October 2021. Death is skewing younger than earlier in the pandemic. People under age 60 now account for 30 percent of all Covid-related deaths in Ingham County.

Hospitalizations are somewhat lower than they were during the fall/winter 2020 and spring 2021 surges, but are still relatively high.

Currently, a total of 144 patients are hospitalized with confirmed or suspected Covid in Sparrow and McLaren Hospitals. Of those hospitalized, 23 are in intensive care units and 15 are ventilated. The hospitalizations include two pediatric patients with confirmed Covid.

Percent positivity remains relatively high – around 15 percent – meaning that about one in seven tests is coming up positive. In November, the Health Department reported daily case counts approaching the levels that Ingham County saw last November, before vaccines were widely available. (Vaccines have been shown to dramatically reduce the likelihood of catching Covid or needing hospitalization if infected.)

In Ingham, about 98 percent of residents age 65 and older are vaccinated, and the Health Department has reached its goal of vaccinating 70 percent of residents age 16 and older. Currently, 59 percent of the population age 5 and up are vaccinated.

Sparrow Hospital is extremely full as it deals not only with Covid but other medical needs, including flu cases. Tiffani Dusang, Director of the Sparrow Hospital Emergency Department, recently told ELi, “The Sparrow Emergency Department remains very busy caring for extremely ill patients. Every room and hallway space is consistently full.”

UPDATE [Nov. 22, 2021 at 1:55 p.m.]: Ninety percent of PECSH-MNA members participated in the strike authorization vote. Of those who participated, 96% voted yes for giving the bargaining team the right to call for a strike if the team deems it necessary.

UPDATE [Nov. 22, 2021 at 5:00 p.m.]: Sparrow Hospital released this statement at 4:40 p.m.

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