July 21, 2024 1:44 am

Amid Burnout and Exhaustion, Nurses at Two Mid-Michigan Hospitals OK New Contracts 

Credit: MNA

by Anna Gustafson, Michigan Advance
February 24, 2023

Nurses at McLaren Central Hospital in Mt. Pleasant and MyMichigan Alma have approved new three-year contracts for workers who described facing burnout and exhaustion throughout the pandemic, the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) announced Thursday.

McLaren Central nurses ratified their contract on Wednesday; MyMichigan Alma nurses approved theirs on Feb. 17. Both contracts “protect and expand contractual staffing language,” provide competitive wages to recruit and retain nurses, and include limits to mandatory overtime, the MNA said. The previous contracts for both hospitals had expired in November.

“This new contract shows what it is possible for nurses to achieve if we remain steadfast and are willing to fight for what is right,” Jessica Harradine, a nurse and president of the local MNA bargaining unit at McLaren Central, said in a press release. “We will continue organizing together as a union to make sure that McLaren honors our ratified agreement and puts patients over profits.”

The months-long battle for new contracts included nurses at McLaren Central and MyMichigan Alma voting to approve strikes if union leaders determined it necessary. 

In interviews with the Advance, nurses at both hospitals described years of deteriorating labor conditions, including being understaffed, feeling undervalued and unheard by their administrations, and experiencing deep fatigue in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nurses left both locations largely because of burnout, workers said. Christie Serniak, a nurse at McLaren Central Michigan Hospital | Courtesy photo

“You get through training somebody; you’ve made these hires and go through the process of training them, and you have this sense of hope that your staffing issues are going to be resolved, but shortly thereafter somebody else leaves so you’re back to square one, short-staffed,” Christie Serniak, who has worked as a nurse at McLaren Central for close to 20 years, told the Advance in January. “This happens over and over and over. It’s defeating.”

Everyone has been “exhausted and burned out from the working conditions in health care,” Serniak said.

Deborah England, a nurse at MyMichigan Alma, described a similar situation at her hospital.

“I graduated in 2021, and I started in nursing after COVID’s initial big hump,” England said in a previous interview. “I was very eager to start in nursing, but when I got there, all the nurses were tired; they were burnt out.”

Across the state, underpaid, overworked and burnt out nurses facing their own trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic are leaving their jobs in droves, union leaders said. 

According to the Michigan Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), there are 154,758 registered nurses with active Michigan licenses. Of those, there are 102,480 people employed as registered nurses in the state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

That, union leaders pointed out, means one-third of active registered nurses are not working as nurses in Michigan.

This is happening not because people do not want to work as nurses but rather because they do not want to face workplaces that leave them with deteriorating physical and emotional health, union representatives said.

“Nurses are leaving the bedside because the conditions that hospital corporations are creating are unbearable,” MNA President Jamie Brown said in a January press release. “The more nurses leave, the worse it becomes. This was a problem before the pandemic, and the situation has only deteriorated over the last three years.”

With the new contracts, nurses in Mt. Pleasant and Alma said they are hopeful change will come. Nurses and community members rally for better working conditions at MyMichigan Alma in December. | Photo courtesy of the Michigan Nurses Association

“Nurses are feeling really proud of this new contract, Shenan Shinabarger, a nurse and president of the local MNA at MyMichigan Alma, said. “As a union, we were able to make meaningful improvements that will benefit our patients and our community. We genuinely hope that this will make a difference for Alma in the long run.”

Union representatives said the problems nurses have faced in Michigan are emblematic of a nationwide issue: Burnt out by skyrocketing patient loads during an ongoing pandemic, nurses throughout the country have increasingly left their jobs and have gone on strike to call for safer working conditions. 

In January, some 7,000 nurses in New York went on strike before hospital executives agreed to add staffing. In September, about 15,000 nurses in Minnesota went on strike over understaffing. In December, the 15,000 nurses threatened to go on strike again after their concerns over working conditions had not been met. That December strike was averted when hospitals agreed to give nurses a say in staffing levels.

Michigan also has seen labor issues at hospitals since 2021. Nurses at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor, Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo and Sparrow Hospital in Lansing authorized strikes before reaching contract agreements with hospital executives.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.