NORTH LAWNDALE — After months of bargaining, Sinai Health System and the Service Employees’ International Union announced they have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract just one workday before the union’s strike deadline Monday.
More than 400 workers, including nursing assistants, dietary aides, housekeepers, transport workers and other staff, overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike in October. After the employees’ contract expired in June, the Service Employees International Union negotiated on their behalf to reach an agreement that would provide liveable wages, affordable health insurance and adequate staffing at Mount Sinai Hospital, one of the city’s busiest Level 1 trauma centers, and Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital.
Progress was slow at the negotiating table and a strike seemed imminent, but representatives from the hospital and the union worked late into the night to find a fair agreement.
“I really applaud the hard work of the negotiating teams from both Sinai and SEIU to reach an agreement that allows us to collectively look forward on our mission and continue to serve our work in improving the health of the most vulnerable communities of Chicago,” said Karen Teitelbaum, Sinai Health System President and CEO.
Currently, more than half of hospital service workers make less than $15 an hour. The new contract will establish a base wage of $15 for all members and provides a pathway for additional raises.
“Today’s victory is a significant step towards lifting up standards for workers throughout the Chicago area hospital industry, a workforce that is disproportionately black and brown and largely female,” said SEIU Healthcare Illinois President Greg Kelly.
Kelly said the new contract is a significant step towards closing the pay gap between Sinai and other Level 1 trauma centers in the city. Union leaders said Mount Sinai’s wages are far below the industry standard for other trauma centers.
Mount Sinai housekeeper Jackie Walker, who has been with the hospital for 24 years, said that this would be her “first decent raise ever.”
After decades at the hospital, Walker’s wage was still less than $15 an hour. But with the new contract, her wage will be bumped up by $2-3.
“This was a difficult fight… but this is the best thing that we have ever had since I’ve been here,” Walker said.
Unit secretary Alice Jones said the contract is a huge victory for employees whose work is critical to the hospital, but who weren’t compensated fairly.
“I was paid so little I couldn’t afford to pay my rent. This new contract is a testament that when working people stand together, we can win,” Jones said.
The new contract will also help to alleviate the understaffing that union leader say forced employees to do the work of multiple people to pick up the slack from unfilled positions.
The hospital’s expensive health insurance plan is also addressed by the new contract. Kelly said this was one of the most pressing issues since many health care workers were previously unable to access their own hospital’s health plan and unable to afford the medical services offered at their place of work.
“The reduction in the contribution to the premium has really been remarkable,” Kelly said, adding that the contract also eliminates some of the pricy co-pays.
Union steward and 20-year Sinai employee Sansaree Brinson said previously that her copay for an emergency room visit was $250.
The workers have also demanded the hospital recognize additional employees who wanted to become members of the union, including nurses and technicians.
At Schwab Rehabilitation, nurses had voted to join the union, but the move was not recognized by the hospital and the nurses were not included in negotiations for the new contract.
“We were not able to get an agreement at the end of the day with the hospital on that. But we maintained that those workers have the right to form their union. And we will continue to make that case,” Kelly said.
In September, more than 2,200 University of Chicago Medical Center nurses waged a one-day strike, contending that the South Side hospital was also chronically short-staffed.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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