HYDE PARK — More than 2,200 University of Chicago Medical Center nurses went on strike Friday after negotiations between hospital management and the nurses’ union broke down.
It’s the first strike in the prestigious hospital’s history. The strike began at 7 a.m. Friday and will continue until 7 a.m. Saturday, but University of Chicago Medical Center officials said replacement nurses will work through Wednesday, effectively locking out the striking nurses.
Nurses, who wore red shirts while picketing at 58th Street and Maryland Avenue, contend the hospital is chronically short-staffed, which endangers nurses and patients.
At the rally Friday, Elaine Mister, a case manager in the hospital’s emergency room department, said as the university expanded its presence in the community through the 2018 opening of its trauma center — which residents fought for for years — it has failed to hire enough nurses to keep up with demand.
The hospital uses a staffing grid, which shows how many nurses are supposed to be on each floor and who they’re caring for. But Mister said that grid is regularly ignored, with fewer nurses on hand.
“If they actually followed [the grid], it actually is pretty good and we probably would would be well-staffed,” said Mister, who has worked there for 26 years.
As a result, multiple nurses at the rally said assaults against nurses are a growing problem at the center, often from patients frustrated with the quality of care their loved ones receive.
“Supplies are so short to save costs, we have to figure out how to help our patients with rationed supplies,” said Brian Kelly, a pediatric critical care nurse at Comer Children’s Hospital. “We’re being physically abused by patients and families, but you refuse to pay for security measures.”
University of Chicago hospital officials have disputed the strike is about staffing levels.
All facilities on the medical center’s campus will remain open, but the hospital went on full bypass late Wednesday ahead of the strike, asking ambulances to take patients to other hospitals.
In the striking nurses’ place, the hospital contracted with hundreds of replacement workers, according to a University of Chicago hospital spokesperson. Because of strikes happening at a dozen hospitals in California, Arizona and Florida, hospital officials said they were able to court fewer replacement workers than they had initially planned.
Because of that, in addition to the bypass, the 618-bed hospital is limiting all transfers from other hospitals, closing some inpatient units and rescheduling some procedures.
Issues of staffing, safety and workplace conditions have been brought to the university’s attention for well over a year, said Brigitt Manson-McToy, a nurse of 32 years who is on the union’s bargaining team. Manson-McToy acknowledged the university came to the table with an offer to improve staffing, but said it wasn’t enough. Staffing needs for night shifts, trauma center nurses and other departments were not properly addressed in the offer, so the workers struck, she said.
Talks between the medical center and the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United broke down late Wednesday, a medical center spokesperson said.
“We’re disheartened that we had to get to this point,” said Sharon O’Keefe, the medical center’s president. “We worked long and hard negotiating with the help of a federal mediator and had hoped union leadership would meet us half way. We now have to focus our efforts on safely operating our hospitals
and caring for the patients who depend on us.”
The union’s previous contract expired in mid-April.
The strikers could see some relief from the legislative branch.
A bill in the state House would place a limit on number of patients that may be assigned to a registered nurse.
It’s backed by, among others, Rep. Theresa Mah (D-2nd District), who attended the strikers’ rally. House Bill 2604 awaits action in the House Rules Committee, where it has sat since May 31.
Alds. Sue Sadlowski-Garza (10th) and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) also supported the striking workers at a rally Friday.
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