Borgess nurses reach tentative contract deal with Kalamazoo hospital

Nurses and community members rally outside of Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo on Nov. 12, 2022. | Photo courtesy of Michigan Nurses Association

By Anna Gustafson, Michigan Advance

The union representing hundreds of nurses at Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo announced late Friday that the group has reached a tentative agreement with the hospital’s administration that would avert a potential strike, boost wages and offer additional benefits.

Michigan Nurse Association members at the hospital are slated to vote on the proposed contract this Wednesday. If members ratify the contract, it will become final and cover approximately 300 hospital nurses who have been working without a contract since Nov. 11.

The deal comes on the heels of the Ascension Borgess nurses voting to authorize their bargaining team to call a strike over what union leaders and workers described as unfair labor practices that have left nurses exhausted, burnt out and departing their jobs altogether. 

“By standing together, we sent a clear message to Ascension that a strong contract that protects patients by recruiting and retaining nurses is vital to our community,” said Lori Batzloff, a nurse at Ascension Borgess and president of the local Michigan Nurses Association bargaining unit. “Now it’s time for the membership to review the tentative agreement. I plan to vote in favor of the deal and encourage other nurses to do the same.”

Ascension Borgess is part of the St. Louis, Mo.-based Catholic health care system Ascension, which operates 139 hospitals and 40 senior living facilities in 19 states and the District of Columbia. 

The hospital did not respond to a request for comment.

Union leaders said highlights of the proposed contract include average wage raises of 20.5% in the first year of the contract, the addition of an emergency personal day for all nurses to help retain workers, and increasing on-call pay. More specifics of the contract will be made public if members ratify it.

In an interview last week, Batzloff said nurses at the Kalamazoo hospital have long faced a staffing crisis and stagnant wages that have pushed workers out the door.

“During the [COVID-19] pandemic, nurses were being paid premium wages by many companies,” Batzloff said. “At Ascension, rather than reward nurses for staying and attempting to retain nurses, they allowed those nurses to go elsewhere. Many of those nurses have not come back.”

When she began working there about six and a half years ago, there were approximately 700 unionized nurses. Today, there are about 350, according to Batzloff. Part of that exodus can be attributed to the pandemic, but much of it is rooted in low wages and dissipating benefits that existed prior to COVID-19, the union leader said.

“During the pandemic, nurses had the ability to make a lot of money in a short amount of time,” Batzloff said. “If you’re going to work as hard as you’re working and emotionally carry the things we had to see and do, a lot of nurses thought, ‘If I’m going to do this, then at least I can be better compensated for this work.’”

Facing daunting working conditions during the pandemic, nurses and other workers across the state and country have gone on strike, or threatened to strike, to secure better wages and benefits. Unionized University of Michigan nurses, for example, threatened to strike before reaching a four-year contract with their employer in October. 

At Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, unionized health care workers ratified a three-year contract that increased wages and created incentives to attract and retain workers. Kellogg’s workers, who also are unionized, in Battle Creek approved a contract that boosted wages and expanded health care.

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: [email protected]. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

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