Union nurses at Michigan Medicine will begin voting Monday on whether or not to hold a work stoppage.

The University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council has been negotiating a new contract with hospital administrators since January. The original contract expired June 30, and negotiations have solved several issues regarding the new contract. The hospital has promised nurses 3 to 4 percent pay increases over the next three years as well as increases in shift differential, weekend and on-call pay. Other issues attended to in the new contact include limits on mandatory overtime and tuition reimbursement for graduate nursing programs and increased professional development funding.

But the issue of nurse-to-patient ratios continues to divide the parties. Since June, the union has filed several unfair labor practice charges against the University  Ben Curl, labor relations representative and attorney from the Michigan Nurses Association, said the charges are mostly related to the hospital administrators’ lack of good-faith bargaining — especially on this particular topic.

“This vote is for the purpose of protesting these unfair labor practices, because … many nurses have felt very disrespected,” Curl said.

Desiree Conyers, UMPNC’s area representative for University Health Services, said the union’s number one priority at this point in negotiations is making sure the hospital commits itself to maintaining  current staffing levels for nurses. Conyers said the levels vary from place to place, but in acute care units, there are generally four patients to each nurse. In intensive care units, there is at least a one-to-one nurse-to-patient ratio.

Though U-M Health System President Dave Spahlinger previously told nurses in written correspondence he does not intend to decrease staffing levels, the hospital’s bargaining team has been unwilling to put any staffing level measures in the new contract.

“All we’re asking is for current levels of staffing to be guaranteed,” Conyers said. “Especially after Dave Spahlinger sent that letter out to membership and he said we have no intention to change staffing. And (we) said, ‘Ok, let’s at least put what you said in writing.’ He refused.”

Michigan Medicine has repeatedly stated its commitment to providing the highest-quality patient care. In August, the health system was ranked fifth best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, and hospital spokesperson Mary Masson said the distinction wouldn’t have been possible without its “excellent nurse-to-patient ratios.”

“Our ratios are in the top 2 percent of all hospitals in the country,” Masson wrote in a statement. “We accomplished this without any contractual requirement to do so because excellent nurse staffing supports excellent patient outcomes.  We remain committed to providing this level of staffing.”

But Conyers said staffing levels feel tight as they are and she doesn’t want to risk going any lower. In one of Michigan Medicine clinics, Conyers said nearly 300 phone calls went unanswered for several days because there were not enough nurses on duty to answer the calls. The health system also recently announced they would be cutting patient-sitters — who sit with high-risk or unruly patients around the clock to make sure they aren’t endangering themselves or others — by 50 percent.

“We have new people in administration. They say trust us. We don’t have a track record with them in terms of trusting,” Conyers said. “Here at the University, we have the sickest of the sick. We need to keep our staffing levels as what they are or even better.”

Between Monday and Sunday, the union will hold a vote on the potential work stoppage. Curl said voting will be held in various locations in the communities where the nearly 6,000 nurses employed by Michigan Medicine work and live.

If the nurses decide to go on strike, the hospital system will be responsible for figuring out to continue patient care while the nurses are absent. According to Curl, nurses discovered after bargaining began that the hospital has been discussing what would happen in the event of a strike since October — months before the parties first entered negotiations. But as far as Curl knows, there is not yet a plan in place. Curl said UMPNC will give 10 days’ notice of a work stoppage and will offer to help create a plan of how to proceed while they’re gone.

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