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Muskegon hospital workers rally, set new deadline for labor contract

Unionized workers at Mercy Health Muskegon rallied for a new contract on Monday, January 17, 2022.
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Unionized workers at Mercy Health Muskegon rallied for a new contract on Monday, January 17, 2022.

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 everything was unknown and chaotic. Now, she works in labor and delivery, helping deliver babies. But last weekend, she said she was called back to the emergency department for a shift.

“It’s just very short staffed,” 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 believes will help the hospital keep more of its staff: a new labor contract.

In a parking lot across the street from the hospital, Scholtens was among dozens of nurses and other staff who rallied for the new contract, which they said should include pay raises and provisions for a safer work environment.

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

What that escalation might entail was left unsaid.

“I am ready to take action, and I know my colleagues are too,” Scholtens said.

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

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

“In our department, we have 45 budgeted positions,” Zeanwick said. “Twenty-four of those currently right now are travelers. So more than half of our staff right now is travelers.”

“We’ve bled staff ... And I just feel like it’s because they don’t feel appreciated.”
Mike Jura, a nurse at Mercy Health Muskegon

Mike Jura, another nurse who works at the hospital, said he had one colleague leave for a more lucrative travel job, then end up right back at the same hospital, doing the same work, for more money.

Travel nurses can make several times they pay of their permanent colleagues. "It’s no wonder the nurses that are there leave,” Jura said.

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

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

The hospital currently reports it has less than half the number of COVID-19 patients than it did during the peak of the surge in November of 2020, but with less staff to take care of those patients, many are stretched thin.

“The amount of people leaving us is slowly breaking us,” said Zeanwick. “Those who are still here are because we truly love what we do, and we love this community.”

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

In a statement, the hospital said it’s offering critical staff pay to a number of types of workers at the hospital, and it recently offered retention bonuses, which the workers rejected. (Union members at Monday's rally said that was because the bonuses didn’t cover all workers.)

The hospital said it has been exchanging proposals with the union since February of last year, and will continue to do so.

“We look forward to increasing 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 so in the past, and see no reason we will not reach agreements with the union.”

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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