NORTH LAWNDALE — More than 400 Sinai Health System workers will will walk out in a strike set to begin Monday unless issues with the hospital leaders are quickly resolved.
The group of workers, which includes nursing assistants, dietary aides, housekeepers, transport workers and other staff, overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike last month. The employees’ contract expired in June, and Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois has been negotiating on their behalf since then to reach an agreement with the hospital that would provide liveable wages, affordable health insurance and adequate staffing at Mount Sinai Hospital and Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital.
“It’s unfortunate that management continues to underpay and understaff the workers at Mount Sinai and Schwab Rehab who give so much to serve the community,” said Greg Kelley, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois.
Workers allege that Mount Sinai officials participate in unfair labor practices that result in high turnover rates and a lack of respect for employees. When workers sought to organize in an effort to improve working conditions, some workers were “surveilled and retaliated against for their union activity,” said Anne Igoe, SEIU vice president and lead negotiator for the strike.
Representatives for both the hospital and the union say they hope to avoid a strike so they can continue to deliver excellent medical care to the community. Hospital spokesman Dan Regan said in a statement that the strike will not impede the capacity of the hospital to provide high-quality care, and that doctors, nurses, and most licensed technical caregivers would not join the strike.
“Sinai is disappointed in the union’s decision to strike, as both sides have been in negotiations for over four months and have had multiple bargaining sessions,” Regan said. “We believe there has been steady progression toward signed agreements between the hospitals and the union.”
But hospital workers and union stewards who have sat at the negotiating table said progress on a contract has been slow. The hospital has failed to make major concessions on key issues like wages and affordable health insurance, union leaders said.
Clarise Evans, a certified nursing assistant at Schwab and a union steward helping with negotiations, said Sinai leaders have refused to budge on compensation even though most of the support staff workers live paycheck to paycheck and juggle multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Evans drives for Uber and Uber Eats, and also works at a nursing home to earn enough to pay her rent and health insurance.
“They’ve had plenty of opportunities to come back and do the right thing by our members. They’ve done nothing,” Evans said.
Another key issue for the union is understaffing at the hospital. Evans said each employee is doing multiple jobs because the hospital has refused to hire an adequate amount of workers. That places a burden on the staff to keep up with one of the city’s busiest emergency rooms, which serves more than 45,000 patients each year.
“They’re working us to the bone, and we’re not being compensated for it,” Evans said.
Sansaree Brinson, a communications operator and a union steward at Sinai, said the hospitals’ housekeeping and dietary departments are missing 12-15 people each.
“So housekeepers is doing two, three floors at 31 beds on each floor,” Brinson said.
Despite working as a caregiver for a community health system, most employees in the union cannot afford the hospital’s insurance plan, Evans said. Her plan costs nearly $200 biweekly, which doesn’t leave much money for other necessities like food and housing.
Brinson said that doesn’t make any sense.
“This is care that we can’t even afford ourselves. If we walk in that emergency room, that’s a $250 copay… in order for us to actually be able to afford some of the things that we give for our community and the patients that we serve, it’s going to take a strike for us to do it,” Brinson said.
Regan, the hospital spokesman, declined to respond to the workers’ complaints.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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