IT HASN’T GOTTEN much play in the media, but the nurses’ union has just begun negotiations on a new contract with UP Health System-Marquette.
It comes at a time when the brand spanking new $300 million dollar hospital arises alongside US-41…and when a quiet sense of turmoil and uncertainty lingers in the halls of the old hospital.
Layoffs. Outsourcing. Repeated admonitions to cut costs. Continuing reports of long hours for nurses, even burnout.
So, given these conditions, how much leverage do the nurses have in the negotiations? Is management even listening?
This, from hospital management: “We are working toward a labor contract that meets the needs of our nursing staff and hospital. We are negotiating in good faith, and will continue to do so.”
The number one concern for the nurses? There’s not enough of them. Many of them are working forced 12 and 16 hour shifts, and monitoring too many patients. Some of them in critical care. That’s dangerous, they say.
From a nurse, unnamed for obvious reasons: “What is disappointing is the hospital isn’t listening to us. We are asking for more help, more staff, and better work conditions, and they are telling us we need a better attitude and to do more with less.”
The hospital will certainly be doing with less, following the recent layoffs of 30 employees, including the Patient Advocate and Patient Liaison. Non-essential personnel apparently. The nursing staff was left intact, fortunately.
But the rumors of a possible second set of layoffs are out there. We asked hospital management whether there were plans for more layoffs…or whether further layoffs could be ruled out. Both questions went unanswered.
From an employee: “No position feels safe. It appears like you could lose your job at any moment.”
Other changes are in the works. Outsourcing. The hospital confirms it will soon be outsourcing environmental service, food service, linen utilization management, transport, and patient flow technology to a national company known as HHS. Management says current employees will likely keep their jobs (reportedly more than 100 of them), but outsourcing always creates uncertainty.
It’s hard to get a handle on exactly what’s happening inside the hospital–Employees are leery of openly voicing criticism–but for the last two years, reports have persisted of an unusual number of doctors and nurses choosing to leave UP Health Systems.
Is it normal turnover? The hospital says yes. That’s the way it is in the industry. Hard to tell. There’s no transparency. The hospital is a private business.
Some nurses have discussed a “sick walkout” as a way to protest the hospital’s repeated demands for “emergency staffing.” Not likely to happen, because they care about their patients, but they’re getting fed up.
From a nurse: “These long shifts affect our families but they (management) don’t seem to care.”
Management says it’s working on it: “….In today’s challenging healthcare environment, we must regularly evaluate our operational structure, processes and procedures to ensure that we are working in a manner that will ensure the long term stability or our organization…”
Translation: We have to change things sometimes to make sure the hospital continues to operate, and we make money.
And that’s understandable. Health care is a highly competitive industry. The hospital is trying to prevent UP patients from going downstate or to Wisconsin and Minnesota. And, of course, there’s that little matter of a $300 million investment on the highway to worry about.
But CEO Brian Sinotte remains optimistic: “While the industry goes through this challenging time, I believe it provides us a unique opportunity to move to the front of the pack. While others are in a stasis because they can’t let go of ‘how we did it 10 years ago,’ we will lay the foundational elements over the next few years necessary to become a High Performing Organization.”
That sounds fine, says one nurse, but she adds this: “My only wish is that we make our hospital awesome again. We all take pride in our work but it’s hard when you keep getting beaten down.”
BUT AMID THIS simmering dissension, it’s important to remind ourselves that the hospital continues to operate, and operate very well for the vast majority of the patients.
Marquette novelist Tyler Tichelaar recently was rushed to the ER with a ruptured appendix.
“That evening,” Tichelaar writes, “Dr. Bulinsky operated and saved my life. I then spent five days in the most excruciating pain and suffering from intense fatigue. During that time, I received nothing but exemplary care. Every now and then I hear people complain about our hospital in Marquette, but I want to say that I don’t think any hospital in the world could have provided me with better care.
“The staff at the UP Health System is the embodiment of kindness, compassion and patience beyond what I could ever fathom having. Everyone from the nurses and care aides to dieticians and cleaning people did their utmost to make me comfortable and well taken care of…”
Buildings, equipment, technology, and money are all important. But it’s the people–the professionals who take care of us–who are the hospital.
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