Muskegon hospital workers rally and set new contract deadline

Monday marked three years since Kala Scholtens became a nurse, she said.

Scholtens was in the emergency department at Mercy Health in Muskegon at the start of the pandemic, she said, when all was unfamiliar and chaotic. Now she works in labor and delivery, helping deliver babies. But last weekend she said she was called back to the emergency room for a shift.

“It’s just very understaffed,” Scholtens said Monday night. “They only had a handful of their core staff.”

So Scholtens celebrated her third anniversary as a nurse by rallying for something she says will help the hospital retain more staff: a new employment contract.

In a parking lot in front of the hospital, Scholtens was among dozens of nurses and other staff who rallied for the new contract, which they say should include salary increases and provisions for a safer working environment.

At the rally, they announced a deadline: If the new contract isn’t approved by Jan. 31, they said, they’re ready to escalate.

What this escalation might entail has not been said.

“I’m ready to act, and I know my colleagues are too,” Scholtens said.

It was a little over a year ago when nurses from that same hospital gathered in that same parking lot to make almost the same demands.

Cyndi Zeanwick was there that night. She’s a respiratory therapist, and she said many of the people who were with her in the hospital a year ago are now gone. Some have given up on health care altogether. Some left for other hospitals. Many have turned to traveling nursing, where nurses accept short-term contracts and travel between different hospitals.

“In our department, we have 45 budgeted positions,” Zeanwick said. “Twenty-four of those who are currently at the moment are travellers. So more than half of our staff are currently travellers.

“We bled the staff… And I just feel like it’s because they don’t feel appreciated.”

Mike Jura, nurse at Mercy Health Muskegon

Mike Jura, another nurse who works at the hospital, said he asked a colleague to leave for a more lucrative traveling job and then end up at the same hospital, doing the same job, for more silver.

Itinerant nurses can make several times what they pay from their permanent colleagues. “It’s no wonder the nurses who are there are leaving,” Jura said.

“We bled the staff,” he said. “And I just feel like it’s because they don’t feel appreciated.”

Mercy Health Muskegon is also one of five Michigan hospitals receiving support from military medical teams to help deal with a surge of COVID patients.

The hospital is currently reporting that it has less than half the number of COVID-19 patients compared to the peak of the November 2020 outbreak, but with fewer staff to care for those patients, many are exhausted.

“The number of people leaving us is slowly breaking us down,” Zeanwick said. “The ones that are still there are because we really love what we do and we love this community.”

It’s time, she said, for Mercy Health management and its parent company, Trinity Health, to show they value the workers.

In a statement, the hospital said it offered essential staff compensation to a number of types of hospital workers, and it recently offered retention bonuses, which the workers rejected. (Union members at Monday’s rally said that was because bonuses did not cover all workers.)

The hospital said it had been exchanging proposals with the union since February last year and would continue to do so.

“We look forward to accelerating the pace of our negotiations, with the ultimate goal of reaching new agreements with the union,” the hospital said in its statement. “We have been able to do this in the past, and we see no reason not to reach agreements with the union.”

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