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UPHS nurses rally for higher pay

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Amanda Klein, a nurse at UP Health System - Portage, marches across the Portage Lake Lift Bridge during a rally in support of nurses at Portage Thursday.

HOUGHTON — Wearing red and chanting “The nurses united will never be defeated,” about 85 UP Health System – Portage nurses and community members rallied on the Portage Lake Lift Bridge Thursday to ask for pay levels they said were necessary to keep and attract nurses.

Portage nurses’ contract with the Tennessee-based LifePoint expired in September after three extensions. A statement from the Michigan Nurses Association said UPHS is only offering a 3.5% raise, below the 7.75% raise it said would keep pace with market rates.

“Our wages are the lowest in the U.P.,” said Kendra Benson, emergency department nurse at Portage. “We need a competitive wage scale with our competing hospitals in order to recruit and retain these nurses.”

Many nurses had quit during the pandemic, stretching the remaining staff thin, Benson said. Nurses have had to work 18-hour shifts when a colleague comes in sick or holes come up in the schedule for other reasons, she said. LifePoint has also hired part-time employees — ranging from 60% to 90% of a full-time rate — who are working full time but still accruing part-time benefits, Benson said.

“There’s an inflation rate, and it’s hard to keep up with cost of living, but we’re being overworked, and it’s just taken a toll on us,” she said. “I think we’re just getting frustrated as nurses.”

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Leanna Pennala, a nurse at UP Health System - Portage, marches across the Portage Lake Lift Bridge during a rally in support of nurses Thursday. Nurses at Portage are negotiating with LifePoint for higher wages, which they said are necessary to recruit and retain nurses.

For their previous contract, nurses had agreed to a lower raise in order to help the hospital during a tough financial time, Benson said. Nurses agreed to a 0.5% raise in 2018, followed by a 1% raise after that.

Portage Health entered into a joint venture with LifePoint in 2013. Since then, it’s become harder to get answers and be heard, said Leanna Pennala, a nurse at Portage for the past 14 years.

“It’s been a difference in management,” she said. “They have a net profit of billions, and we just don’t feel they want to listen to us or want to invest in us.”

Nurses said they resented working for lower pay considering the finances of the company’s owners. LifePoint is owned by the New York-based private equity firm Apollo Management, which managed more than $470 billion in assets as of the second quarter of 2021. The company has made a profit during the pandemic, MNA said. Forbes listed its current CEO’s net worth at $4.9 billion as of Thursday.

“I’ve watched my co-workers burning out on our short-staffed department and have seen the hopeless exhaustion in their eyes, but LifePoint doesn’t care,” said Amanda Klein, a nurse at Portage. “I’ve witnessed our patients wait longer for care, and have felt the frustration of them and their families, but LifePoint doesn’t care. The only thing LifePoint cares about is profit.”

The nurses who participated in Thursday’s rally were not missing work to do so, the MNA said. The Portage nurses’ rally follows a strike four years ago by nurses at UPHS – Marquette.

“We want to provide a safe, healthy community and still care for our patients, so hopefully we don’t get to that point,” Benson said. “But us nurses are still committed, we’re holding to this rally, and we’re not going to stop advocating.”

Pennala, a member of the negotiating team, said they plan to meet again with LifePoint next week.

“We’re really hoping that they will start to listen to us and the things that we needto get a fair contract,” she said.

Local nurses were joined at the rally by nurses from Marquette and downstate, including Michigan Nurses Association Executive Director Janella James. Members of other local unions also showed up in solidarity.

“You have the whole community, you have the whole labor movement behind you, ” said Cajsa Maki Mannila, a steelworker and field coordinator for the Upper Peninsula Labor Federation. “Everybody’s praising essential workers, and you know you’re it. You’re the most essential …. You can’t be the best, and take the best care of people, unless you have time to take care of yourself first. Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not doing the best for your community by asking for that.”

In a statement, UP Health System – Portage said it would continue to seek a contract resolution with the nurses.

“The employees represented by the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) are critical members of our team, and we support them and respect their right to assemble and speak freely to the community they serve,” the statement read. “We understand that the hospital’s contract negotiations with the MNA will likely be addressed. While we cannot comment on specific elements of those negotiations out of respect for the bargaining process, we are confident that the result will be a mutually agreeable contract for all. In the meantime, please rest assured that we will not be distracted from providing excellent care to our patients and community.

“UP Health System – Portage takes very seriously our commitment to delivering high-quality, safe, and compassionate care close to home, and we strive daily to create excellent workplaces for our employees. Especially during this pandemic, which has arguably been the most challenging situation the healthcare industry has ever faced, we want to recognize and support our staff and clinical teams who have cared for our patients during this time.”

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