Nurse staffing shortages come to Michigan hospitals – with a twist
Nurses with OPEIU Local 40. | OPEIU Nurses Council

MT. CLEMENS, Mich.—If you’re a registered nurse and your union contract with two hospitals includes safe-staffing ratios, what do you do if the hospitals break those pact provisions?

The answer from Office and Professional Employees Local 40, which represents 1,000 nurses at two hospitals in the upscale Detroit suburb of Mount Clemens, Mich., is you hammer at the issue in bargaining sessions, file labor law-breaking complaints with the National Labor Relations Board – and raise hell in public.

Which is what the local did, convening a Town Hall meeting in Mount Clemens on the evening of April 19 to tell the community what’s going on, and take questions, Local President Jeff Morawski said in a pre-meeting telephone interview.

Safe staffing is a nationwide problem, as insurers lean on hospitals to cut costs by cutting down the number of nurses available per shift. The firms’ tactic is to deny reimbursements for claims, arguing they’re paying too much for too many people. One result is doctors’ short visits with patients.

Another and more common result is fewer nurses in key hospital areas, such as intensive care units, cardiac care units and emergency rooms.

In response, unions that represent nurses, led by National Nurses United, the Office and Professional Employees, the Teachers (AFT), the Communications Workers and the Steelworkers, have campaigned, state by state and nationwide, for mandatory safe-staffing ratios and limits on mandatory overtime.

They’ve already succeeded in California and several other states. Bills on those issues, HB4629 and S487 among them, are pending in the GOP-run Michigan legislature. The unions also back safe-staffing legislation from Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., in Congress. That body’s GOP leaders won’t consider it.

“Local 40 supports a number of bills pending in the Michigan legislature that address the issues of RN-to-patient staffing ratios, that require hospitals to inform the public of their actual staffing ratios and that limit overtime for hospital registered nurses,” Local 40 said in announcing the town hall.

“This is not only an issue of protecting nurses and healthcare professionals, but an issue of public health,” Morawski explained in that statement. Overworked nurses, pushed into long hours and overtime – and subject to assault – can’t “provide the highest level of care possible for their patients.

“Nurses care deeply about patients and their families and want to ensure they are able to properly care for them. Only with legislated safe staffing requirements will that be possible,” he said in announcing the Town Hall meeting.

But hospitals sometimes skimp on staffing because they’re erecting big new buildings. One of the two hospitals Local 40 represents, McLaren Macomb and Ascension Crittenton, is preparing to break ground on a 3-story $68 million emergency room tower. “How are they going to staff it?” Morawski asks.

“We’ve been bargaining a contract extension” since the old pact ended last July, he said in the interview. And the safe-staffing issue, along with the inter-related issue of workplace violence, keeps coming up in the talks. Another bargaining session was scheduled for the afternoon before the Town Hall meeting.

“The safe-staffing numbers in the contract are good,” Morawski said of the now-expired pact, which stays in effect through the current talks. “But when you offer overtime every single day, you’re constantly short in the ER and the ICU.”

“We need more nurses, and our two hospitals need to be competitive” with others nearby “in offering pay” and job protections, he elaborated.

“Our plan of action is to bring awareness of the issue” to the public at the town hall. Discussions of short-staffing at the two hospitals have already hit social media, through Facebook postings, plus stickers and buttons nurses wear highlighting the workplace violence problem.

The short-staffing leads to that, too, Morawski said. “The employer says they’re aware of it, but they don’t do anything until problems escalate,” he commented.

Recent assaults have occurred at the two hospitals Local 40’s nurses work at.

“A few weeks ago, a family member of one of the patients threatened nurses” with physical violence. The nurses were locked in a lounge, and an assault by that relative resulted in a report to the Macomb County sheriff’s office – and a complaint to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration about unsafe working conditions.

And the week of April 9, a registered nurse at McLaren Macomb had to go on light duty for a wrist injury after a male family member tried to prevent the RN from giving the patient some medication – by assaulting her. “We’re unsure if it’s a soft tissue injury or a break,” Morawski added.

The hospitals’ reaction to all this is to both refuse to address the issue and – in bargaining – try to play the nurses off against each other, depending on which hospital they work at. “’We can’t give you what you want. Look at Ascension. They’re laying people off,’” Morawski quotes McLaren Macomb bargainers as arguing.

That doesn’t deter the nurses and Local 40 from its mission of improving staffing so nurses can better care for their patients – and be safe on the job.

“More and more, health care workers are in danger when they’re working,” Morawski concluded.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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