UPHS nurses’ No. 1 concern is staffing levels

Scott Balko, president of the UP Health System-Marquette RN Staff Council, and Stephanie DePetro, the union’s chief grievance steward, speak at a press conference Friday afternoon at the union’s office in Marquette. (Journal photo by Mary Wardell)

By MARY WARDELL Journal Staff Writer MARQUETTE — Not wages and benefits, but guaranteed staffing levels — that’s what nurses at UP Health System-Marquette are demanding in ongoing contract negotiations, or they plan to strike. The local chapter of the Michigan Nurse’s Association gave notice Friday of its intent to strike Oct. 5-6 if meaningful progress is not made regarding what union leaders say are unsafe patient care ratios. UPHS-Marquette, a subsidiary of Duke LifePoint, responded in a press release Friday afternoon. Victor Harrington, regional director for marketing and business development at UPHS, said prior to the strike dates, the hospital has four meetings scheduled for negotiations with the MNA. “We will continue to bargain in good faith; however, should it occur, we are fully prepared to handle a strike and ensure there is no interruption in care for our patients and community members,” Harrington said in the release. “We are securing fully-qualified staff to replace those who go on strike and are attending to every detail in preparation for this event. As always, delivering quality care and services to our patients will remain our primary focus, and we will not allow anything to stand in the way of providing the best for our community.” The strike, should it take place, is scheduled to last from 7 a.m., Oct. 5 until 6:59 a.m., Oct. 7. The union is required by law to give at least 10 days notice before striking. Scott Balko, president of the UPHS-Marquette RN Staff Council, said at a press conference Friday that the union doesn’t want it to come to that, but the action is motivated by the “safety of our patients and the good of our community.” “It’s time,” said Stephanie DePetro, the union’s chief grievance steward. “We’ve been negotiating with Duke LifePoint for close to six months, since the middle of April. It’s time that they start coming to the table prepared, with meaningful proposals and start to put our community first, before profits. You know, we’re a tight-knit community. We care about our patients. We want the best for them, and that’s why we’re here, and that’s what we’re fighting for.” In case of an emergency during the strike, DePetro said there is a list of nurses who will cross the picket line to provide care to patients. Nurses have been working without a contract since a two-month extension expired July 28. Balko said after a total of 26 negotiating sessions, little has been accomplished but frustration is growing. “This is not a place we want to go, but we feel like we’re being pushed in this direction,” Balko said. The nurse’s union represents about 400 employees at UPHS. Balko said based on the results of a recent vote, he’s confident most of them will strike. The issue of staffing levels came to the union’s attention in a member-wide survey heading into negotiations, he said, adding that it topped wages and benefits as the No. 1 concern. “We have nurses right now working 16-hour shifts,” DePetro said. “We have patients waiting hours to get pain medications, we have surgical patients waiting hours to get beds, waiting for just the simple basic necessities and to provide basic nursing care to our patients. And there’s just not simply enough of us to care for all of them the way that we feel the patient should be cared for.” The MNA is backing bills introduced in Lansing that would regulate patient-staff ratios and make those numbers available to the public, Balko said, but currently there are no such laws. Balko said inadequate staffing combined with long hours is a safety concern. “Things can go wrong very quickly on the floor and you need to be top of your game and ready for it,” Balko said. “I find it amazing that there isn’t some kind of law in place, especially with the advent of for-profit health care, you know. Just like everything else, the bottom line is the only thing that truly matters, and we’re seeing that first-hand in Marquette.” Tammy Sustarich, RN and member of the union’s bargaining unit, said staffing ratios for daycare centers are mandated by law. “So your healthy child at a daycare center has a staffing ratio, but your sick child at a hospital does not,” Sustarich said. She added that patient safety is an urgent concern for nurses, who are serving their family members, friends and neighbors. “We use this hospital just like everybody else,” Balko said. Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is mwardell@miningjournal.net.