Estimated 1,000 Chicago health care workers striking for better conditions

"To strike was not a decision that we took lightly," a staffer said.

September 14, 2020, 8:47 PM

At least 800 Chicago nurses and several hundred health care workers went on strike Monday, calling for safer working conditions and fair pay.

"Nurses across the country are at the tipping point," said Doris Carroll, who has worked as a nurse at University of Illinois Health for more than three decades and is president of the Illinois Nurses Association board, the nurses' union. She said chronic staffing shortages were a problem even before COVID-19; now things have gotten even worse. "When the pandemic hit, it was awful," she said.

Having a manageable ratio of nurses to patients is safer for patients, and for nurses, who are overwhelmed by the number of patients they have to treat with a skeletal staff, she explained. Then there's the temporary health care workers the hospital hired to treat patients during the seven-day strike, some of whom come from COVID-19 hotspots.

In addition to hospital money spent on temporary workers wages,' Carroll worried about temporary workers from hard-hit states seeding an outbreak at the hospital.

Nurses at the University of Illinois Hospital (UIH) rally on the first day of their strike in Chicago on Sept. 12, 2020.
Max Herman/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

It's not just nurses who are frustrated by working conditions at University of Illinois Hospital, a public hospital. "To strike was not a decision that we took lightly," said Lavitta Steward, an administrative assistant in the ophthalmology department, who goes by "Ms. Vee."

Steward, who is part of a local bargaining unit at the Service Employees International Union, which represents health care workers, described the working conditions she and her front-line colleagues face. In addition to being short-staffed, the lowest paid people in the union, who clean hospital rooms and classrooms, aren't paid a livable wage, she said. Some work second jobs in the evening, after their full-time hospital shifts, in order to make ends meet.

"You shouldn’t have to work a full-time day job, and then to feed your family and pay for day care, work another job in the evening," she said. "We are the families who live in the community," she added. "We're affected by the pandemic. We're hurting. And on top of that we're being overworked and underpaid."

Michael Zenn, CEO of the University of Illinois Hospital & Clinics, pushed back on the nurses' call to set limits on the number of patients they treat in a statement. One-size-fits-all staffing ratios are "too rigid," Zenn said. If the hospital were to set a limit on the number of patients nurses could treat, emergency department wait times would increase and operating costs would go up, according to Zenn.

Zenn also defended the 500 agency nurses and staff that the University of Illinois hired to temporarily replace the striking workers. The hospital is requiring all temporary nurses and staff from COVID-19 hotspots to get tested before starting work. "We are exceeding the Chicago Department of Public Health requirements for travel of essential health care workers," he said. "Of the 523 agency staff who have been onboarded at UI Health, 32 are from a designated hotspot state, and none have tested positive."

Steward saw the situation differently. "2020 is the year of awakening," she said. "We want UIC to be part of that movement."

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